Sometime during my mid-teens, my mother started bestowing names on inanimate household objects. Until then, our toaster had remained “the toaster,” the brown Chevy Vega was “the Vega” (I would have tagged it “Mr. Lemon,” but that’s what we got for buying a Vega), our porch swing went by “the porch swing.”
Then she started with the naming. I remember arriving home after a weekend away to find my mother in the kitchen, beaming impishly next to the telephone.
I saw no one. Then she pointed to the answering machine. George was the answering machine. This new purchase was one of the earliest models able to “speak,” if you could call it that.
Why George? She’d named it after the comedian George Burns, someone who had always made her laugh. The answering machine’s robotic intonations made her laugh. It was that simple. Or that scary.
Not long after, “Benny” appeared. Oh, technically, he had been there all along, but under the neutral guise of “the porch swing.” Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. (See how this works?)
The Chevy Vega became “Elvis.” Not the skinny Elvis with the explosive hips, but the later-career Elvis, the Elvis who worked . . . Vegas.
And so it went. I met Mencken the roll top desk (we lived in Baltimore), Squeaky the washing machine, Mae West the love seat. As for the toaster, I’m sad to say I can no longer recall its nom de mom.
It has since crossed my mind that perhaps something deep within my mother was making up for the peculiar names that others in the family had bequeathed to our pets over the years. Flumpy. Funny Doodle. Stripey Putt Putt. And one cat whose name had allegedly come from an actual real live human being: Inglefinger Delducca.
Perhaps she craved a Fido. Or a Midnight. Or just a Bob.
This all peaked with Calamity Jane. Miss Jane was a powder blue VW bug that my father picked up directly from the factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, and drove/ferried over to Ireland, where the family had gathered for vacation. Unfortunately, day one of vacation saw my oldest sister steer the car into one of Ireland’s ubiquitous low stone walls, rendering the vehicle useless until repaired. It was shipped to the States to meet us there.
Soon after, while driving the bug on my learner’s permit, I sideswiped a car driven by (the luck, the luck) an Irish woman. Next up: My other sister, who spun the VW out on a Tennessee bridge in a freak ice storm, crunching it into the guardrail. Followed by my father, who was idling at a stop sign when a neighborhood boy rode his bicycle right into the passenger-side door. And this was decades before texting. Even my mother had her moment, gazing into the rearview mirror as the souped-up muffler my brother had installed came loose and clanked and bounced along the road behind her. By then, I’m sure the car already had its name.
Finally, that self-same brother, squinting against a glaring sun, ran a just-turned-red traffic light and walloped the rear end of a station wagon that was being driven by — I swear this is true — the wife of our insurance agent.
At least the paperwork was easy.
That was end of Jane. She was sold for parts. It was also the end of the naming mania. Our next car was a Chevette, and it remained “the Chevette.” That Christmas we got a pool table for the family room and nobody called it “Fats.”
That said, there was a recent reprise. Or relapse. My mother is well into her 80s now, and, by the way, more active than many folks a full decade younger. Last month she got her first smart phone. Guess what she calls it?
Dummy.Tim Cockey is a novelist who lives in New York City.