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Sunday, April 8, 2012

The story of my name

People are often named after relatives, friends, and people their parents want to honor like celebrities and heroes. I was named after a baby in a diaper commercial. I guess my mom ran out of ideas after already having three kids. A few days before I was born, she caught wind of a cute baby’s bottom on TV and decided to name me Melanie, after the name of this telegenic kid (and her uber-cute butt cheeks).

Growing up, I was called Mel. “Smelly Melly” or “Mel Smells” was particularly popular with my siblings. Thus, I hated being called Mel as it rhymed with smell and Hell and fell and it was way too masculine for my liking. Mel Brooks and Mel Blanc were cool dudes, I know, but "Melvin" is gross. I just couldn’t identify with what I perceived to be short, bald, cigar chomping smart asses.
One year when I was twelve, I read a book about a girl named Melanie but her nickname was “Lanie.” That appeared to be a good solution to the need for people to shorten my name. That Christmas, I signed each gift tag “from Lanie” but other than providing a few laughs,  it didn’t catch on.

As an adult, I insisted that people call me Melanie which was fine but so many people confused the name with Melissa or Melinda or Melody…I worked with an older gentleman who called me Melissa up until the day I had my going away party. “It was nice working with you, Melissa!” he told me. I had long given up correcting him.
At some point I discovered that I was born on Saint Cecilia’s Day. She was the patron saint of music and scores of gorgeous music has been written in her honor. What would life be like if I were called Cecilia? It seemed regal to me, but I knew people would sing that Simon and Garfunkel song, that’s a given. It was hard for me to imagine any other downside. When I mentioned this to my mother, she said, “Oh, if I knew that, I would’ve named you Cecilia.” I found that hard to believe. I was also born on Thanksgiving Day. She could’ve named me Butterball. But no, that TV diaper model made a very strong impression on her.
I had an epiphany of sorts when the day came that I actually met Mel Brooks. He was introduced to me as his guide to Monticello, where I worked for several years. “I’m a Mel, too!” he chirped as he shook my hand, stepping into the Entrance Hall.  “Yes, indeed” I thought, as years of angst over my name bubbled up to the surface and I smiled. I genuinely smiled. I am a Mel, too. Why not?
Today, I prefer to spell it “Melle” as it seems to fit my feminine nature, but I’ll answer to just about anything. I have learned to react to people calling me Melissa, Melanoma, Mellarky and a multitude of other Melodious and Malodorous Malapropisms of my name that I really don’t mind anymore.

I’ve found it intriguing that my mother’s name, Helen, means “light” and mine means darkness. I know that would never have crossed her mind when, telling the hospital staff that her little girl was Melanie, it sounds like melody, it sounds like a name she will grow up to love.

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