My mother’s name is Mary, and so my father has never called me such. Dr. Freud would approve. And while my extended family makes the distinction by calling me “Mary Beth,” somehow my dad came up with Bessie and thought it was adorable. When my parents discovered that Bessie was easy for my toddler brother to pronounce, it stuck. At least on the nuclear level.
As you might imagine, in my adolescence, I did not like being Bessie. It was not, nor is it yet again, popular. While the U.S. Census pegged Bessie as the 13th most popular girls’ name in 1880, it plummeted out of the top 100 by 1930 and nosedived from the top 1000 by 1970.
Worse yet for my teenage years, Bessie is neither sleek, nor sexy. It is not stylish. Not a single model in Seventeen magazine ever had that name. And, though somewhere in a corner of Park Slope there may be an urban hipster mother plotting to bring back the name is a burst of ugly-chic, to this day Bessie remains shunned.
The nickname didn’t bother me as a very young child. Heck, I was surrounded by relatives with equally unattractive, ragged-old-laundry-hanging-in-the-back-alley names—like Reenie (for Irene) and Mossie (for Martha). But by my teenage years, I really, really wanted my dad and my brother—and by now my younger sisters who had gotten in on the act—to quit it. The worst was when my brother’s friends would tease me about the name: “Bessie the cow.” “Old Bess, my gun.” (And this from a kid with a big schnoz whose surname was Finnochio. Sheesh.)
Sure, there was Bessie Smith. And Bess Myerson—the first Jewish Miss America. But that was IT. Unless you were belting out the blues with a voice full of sorrow and steel, or you were transcendentally beautiful, this was not a good name. With my reedy soprano, eyeglasses and frizzy hair, I was none of these things (although I have since graduated to contact lenses!).
Out in the wide world, I was always Mary. I can thank the nuns for this one thing: They invariably stuck to the name on the form, the proper name of your patron saint. On a bad day, if I got in trouble, it would get lengthened to Mary Elizabeth. Not bad, considering the possibilities. School transitioned to work where, again, I was Mary. Plain. Vanilla. Virginal. (Yes, there’s another blog here.) But clean and crisp and professional. I just needed to keep my home and work lives separate. And always, always, there came the cringe-inducing moment in any serious romance where my love learned about “Bessie.” How he handled that knowledge pretty much sealed the fate of the relationship.
Now, however, that I am in my 40s, I am liking Bessie. It has the advantage of being rare. And I am secure enough to feel that I can overcome its negative connotations. Particularly, I like that the only people who know me as Bessie and call me by that name, are people to whom I am deeply attached. Also, I’ve discovered Bessie (or Bess) Coleman, a beautiful African-American, part-Cherokee pioneer aviatrix who was a famous barnstorming pilot in the 1920s. Talk about your style and moxie.
Still, I would not suggest naming a child Bess or Bessie (or Mossie or Flossie or Mable or Bertha or Phyllis or any of their ugly sisters) unless you are a supermodel who is married to George Clooney and you are pretty well assured that your child will be gorgeous. Also, you and George will need to be able to insulate her from teasing by using your wealth to hire a security detail around your home on Lake Como in Italy.
And while you’re at it, buy her an airplane. What the heck.
Mary (Bessie) Barr Mann is a freelance writer and editor living in Maplewood, NJ, with her husband and two children. Her work appears regularly on www.patch.com and www.glocallynewark.com and in the occasional print publication.