The Fool On The Hill

The name I started out with was Elizabeth DeWitt Keiffer.

The WASP/DAR ancestral significance of “DeWitt” was lost on me because it sounded like “duh.” Since no one had explained to my satisfaction where the name came from or why I had it,  I failed to appreciate how it  connected me to my ancestors, or why that connection was important.

People could never pronounce or properly spell “Keiffer” which my father had quietly altered to rhyme with “reefer,” so that no one, including me, would suspect it was a Jewish name.

How do I get to call myself WASPY while at the same time copping to a touch of the Matzoh? My mother came with solid and unalienable WASP cred, whereas my father did not. My grandmother was a redheaded Scottish beauty, and my grandfather was a faithless Jewish guy who abandoned her, my aunt, and my father during the depression. I did not learn that my grandfather was a Jew until my mother let it slip after a few cocktails too many on Christmas Eve when I was nineteen.

Against this backdrop of confusion about who I was supposed to be and where I had come from, a thicket of nicknames sprang up in our house for each other, and many of the people we came in contact with.

Some of the names I responded to were “Legs”, “Fong”, “Bumper” and “Stormy”.

There were at least a dozen other nicknames among the five of us.

The names we had for each other confused many the unsuspecting house guests who arrived at our house on any given Friday with intact livers and left on Sunday with cirrhosis. These people, addled by liquor and food, and buoyed by the heady brew that was my parents, would  sometimes grievously overstep and get the erroneous impression that they were free to address me by one of my many stupid nicknames. In my book, that was a major trespass and I would have a hard time forgiving their disrespect. Little did they know that the slightest misstep over the weekend would earn them a new, secret name that would forever eclipse their real names.

Our family nicknames were mostly affectionate, but the names we conjured for outsiders were reliably snarky. The key to fashioning a good handle for someone was to incorporate the person’s real name, and then attach it to a personality tic.

Another naming convention for people outside the family was to somehow pervert a person’s enthusiasm for something, or their occupation, into something silly, and then shapes it into a new name. For example, I called the developmentally disabled man who mowed the lawn for my mother “The Mow-ron” or “The Fool on the Hill.”  As someone who had so much name baggage, one would think I might have felt some compunction about our hapless victims, but looking back, I think I must have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome.

Strangely enough, I just accepted Fong and Legs when it was dished out by my family, but being called “Lizzy” by anyone, ever,  got my back up. When I was about 12, I announced to my parents that I would prefer to be called “Liz.” They seemed to go along with my wish in theory, but in practice they  continued to call me Lizzy. My mother was particularly infuriating when she would refer  to me as Lizzy, and then quickly, and self consciously, correct herself, as in “Oops, I mean ‘Liz’—Lizzy has just announced she now wishes to be called ‘Liz’.”

My needs were simple. I wanted to be called “Liz.” Not Lizzy, Miss Liz, Lizzy Tish, Lezzy, Bumper, or Legs. Being called Lizzy made me cringe, whereas being called Liz did not.  It wasn’t like I was insisting my family call me Sugar Magnolia or something else equally farfetched. It was a simple adjustment to make, yet for some reason they could not bring themselves to forsake Lizzy.

Years before suggesting to my family that they call me what I wanted them to, my friend and I had spent a giggly summer evening calling each other “LaVie” and “LaVoo”.

In a moment of inspiration, I tried out “LaVie” once I started hanging with the cool kids in ninth grade. Seeing that it had gone over well with them, I was emboldened to unveil “LaVie” for real when I arrived at boarding school as a sophomore. It was all the sweeter when I discovered that calling myself LaVie deeply annoyed my parents.

If I chose to, I could make an issue of my name in social situations with my parents. I savored their discomfort as they uttered “LaVie” with about as much gusto as someone forced at gun point to say “cunt”  in a church. By that time I was tall and confident, and it was payback time.

The years went by and one day I found myself in my first job out of college, working  as an editorial assistant. Because I was embarking on something new, I decided that I would be an editorial assistant named “Elizabeth.” Given that my new job required bras, nylons and padded shoulders, a fresh new name seemed in order to complement the freshly minted young professional that I envisioned myself becoming. The three syllable of Elizabeth, the “Z”, and the fact that it is an old name, helped me feel more confident.

After deciding that I wanted to be a graphic designer instead of an advertising copywriter, I reverted to  LaVie full time, and stayed LaVie until  Thing 1 and Thing 2  entered the school system. Then, in a moment of uncharacteristic empathy for others, I realized that having a mother who called herself LaVie might not be so great for the kids, so I went back to Liz.

Oddly enough, as parents we had second thoughts about the name we had chosen for Thing 1. We ended up having it legally changed when we realized it did not have sufficient gravitas. At the time, Thing 1 was still very young, and didn’t suffer too much when we informed him that we were changing his name whether he wanted us to or not.

I think I took names so seriously when I was younger because I saw how powerfully a name could define a person, and how easily a name could be tweaked to make someone ridiculous. Joining the Fool on the Hill, we had The Iron Mouse, The Sewer, The Animal Husband and Mabel Black Label to name a few.

Since I could not crack the code that would reveal to me the combination of attributes my parents required to deem a person worthy of simply being called by their name, I tried valiantly to define myself on my own terms. Having a name that I had established for myself made me feel like I was carrying a secret charm that would make me immune to my family’s judgement.

I have settled into Liz now, but I wasn’t easy. Even as an adult, I would sometimes wonder what it would feel like to be someone named Liza.

All of my name changes have confused my friends. My old friends still call me LaVie, or, they try to remember to call me Liz. Newer friends are puzzled when they hear someone refer to me as LaVie. My Elizabeth phase is so far back in the mists of time that I no longer know anyone from that period and now, when someone calls me Elizabeth I know it is because I am about to endure an unpleasant medical procedure. To this day, I still bridle inside when I am called Lizzy.

I indulge in creative name calling from time to time. It is very rare, and the person has to have done something really bad to uncork my snarky demon. I am frighteningly good at concocting truly devastating names for the deserving few. Renaming the offender gives me power and helps neutralize the hurt. 

Our own kids endured some goofy, affectionate nicknames as children, but once they hit adolescence, we banished the nicknames from our everyday consciousness to avoid accidentally deploying them in front of their friends.

I’m sure Inkader and Ticka-Bicka appreciate our discretion.

Related posts: Five Dachshunds, Two Dogs and One Bitch

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  1. Jody Petersen says:

    Reading this and laughing made my morning. Also love getting a sense of what was a truly different world than my California world and “family” life.

  2. elizabeth says:

    I share your name pain(s) and assume, like me, the naming mania extends to pets. Unlike you, I don’t exchange one for another. I just string them altogether as in the case of our
    former and beloved beagle/lab mix Xiola, Electric Blue, Rutabga-Rutabega, Jumbolaya, Soultrain Lawrence. Zee, for short. She had soul.

  3. Al says:

    LaVie, I laughed out loud at least three times while reading your story. “Lizzie” will never cross my lips. Thanks for another great story!

    1. admin says:

      As if you ever would, Alex!

  4. Kathryn says:

    Well, you are Liz to me! (Hope that’s okay!). We, too, have some family nick-names, which I won’t share here, but I do understand the “Lizzy” thing…I’ve NEVER been called “Kathy” and cringe when people refer to me that way. It’s Kathryn or my family nick-name! A truly funny story, as always. I so look forward to the next one!

    1. admin says:

      My sister is Catherine, and she goes by Katy. I used to brood because I wasn’t named Katy instead. It is one of my favorite names and if we had had a daughter, wewould have named her Catherine for sure,

      1. Cathy says:

        I wonder what it is about that name… As a child, I preferred the name Katie, and not realizing I could use it myself, gave it to my teddy bear.

        1. admin says:

          Love the name Katy and wished I had gotten it instead of my sis. I also wished for straight hair like hers, and she wished for wavy hair like mine. Just goes to show you … humans are crazy

  5. Katy Keiffer says:

    Ahem.. as your sibling, as well as someone who endured, and continues, at this point, to enjoy the nickname mania, I must remind you that LaVie had its origins in a much earlier period of your life. At age 7 you announced that you no longer cared to be called Shorty, Shortlegs, or Bumper, but rather a name you had coined for yourself, Lump LaVie. Now why Lump needed to be in there was always a mystery to all of us, but the fact is that LaVie had its origins long before you claimed it as a teenager.

    And I still like to call Oldest, Jakity, and Youngest, Bockety Swatch….even if I don’t say it out loud!

    1. admin says:

      Oh crikey, I had forgotten about Shorty and Shortlegs! No wonder I was bonkers, And I think you must be right about the earlier inception of Lump LaVie…I had forgotten that. I only remembered running around with my friend at Willow Dell and from then on we called each other LaVie and LaVoo. No doubt that you have suffered some name trauma yourself, but that is not my story to tell! I also like those silly names we have for the kids, but I really do try to tread lightly, given my own incredible neurosis about names.

  6. K. Stoddard Hayes says:

    I have always thought my first name, Karen, is bland and generic (one reason why I use “K. Stoddard” instead of “Karen” in my byline). However, reading these nickname trials and troubles of an Elizabeth, reminds me once of the one thing I do like about my given name: you can’t do anything to it. There’s no nickname for “Karen.” Thank goddess!

    1. admin says:

      I love the name Karen! And you are right–can’t do too much to butcher it. My in-laws all had their names end with an “ie” when they were growing up except the youngest daughter. My mother-in-law was very clear that her youngest’s name was not to be messed with!

  7. Terry Cylkowski says:

    Always enjoyable La Vie.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks Terry (AKA Terry Boy) XOXO

  8. Andrea says:

    aha! thank you for clarifying this. I have been calling you “Oh hey!”, or “long pause__________ Liz”, because I am slow, and also because I never knew how LaVie was spelled. My dad pronounced it Liv-VEE. So the few times I was going to address you by LaVie in writing, I was like Live? Livey? Livy?

    1. admin says:

      I know! It’s a nightmare. It just got completely out of hand!

  9. kate vivian says:

    I bet I’ve called you Lizzie a bit. I’ll try never to do that again. I enjoy your writings very much!

    1. admin says:

      I’m like a travel agent from hell…sending you on a big old Guilt Trip! XOXO

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