Decades ago, our father told us that he and Ulysses S. Grant originally shared the same first name — Hiram. The Union general was born Hiram Ulysses Grant, but when he went to West Point, his initials were viewed as not terribly military or masculine, so he ditched the first name. God knows what the history of the Civil War would have been otherwise. Generals with handkerchiefs monogrammed HUG might be a bit too sensitive for carnage and bloodshed.
But Daddy kept his first name. His parents had named him for some kind of Masonic leader. Even worse, to be cute, they named his twin sister Hira. They were beautiful children, half Native American and very exotic-looking, with ghastly names. (The sad thing was, this wasn’t the first incident of twin-naming-abuse in the family. Daddy and his sister had twin aunts who had reportedly been the first Anglo twins born in the Oklahoma Territory. They were named — get this — Okla and Homa. Homa died before Ellen and I were born, so we only grew up knowing Aunt Okla. I always thought she’d been named after a vegetable, but somebody had misspelled it on the birth certificate.)
The lesson, to me, was that some families should never be allowed to name twins.
But anyway. Daddy went through life with this old-fashioned, pioneer, early American given name that wasn’t good enough for Ulysses S. Grant. He was usually nicknamed Hi, which was a better choice. Let’s face it: When you start out with “Hiram,” there aren’t any great diminutives.
Decades passed. Hiram didn’t appear on any lists of the most popular names for boys. To my knowledge, I never heard any prospective parents query, “Should we name him Justin? Or Hiram? Or Matthew?” (Although Hiram would have offered the obvious advantage that nobody else on the peewee soccer team would have had the same first name.) And what about my husband and me? Did we ever consider naming our son Hiram? Huh? Are you kidding?
But I digress. (Hell, I spend my life digressing.) The fact is, Hiram’s slipped out of common usage — just another sturdy, old-fashioned monniker like Elmer that didn’t make the modern, baby-naming cut. Not as glamorous as Ulysses, no storied place in the literary canon. Hiram, like old soldiers and like Republicans’ memories of weapons of mass destruction, is just fading away.
Which is why, it seems, that nobody can pronounce the name any longer. Daddy goes to the hospital. “What is his name?” an attendant asks me, squinting at the papers. “Eeeee-ram?”
A pharmacy calls. “I have a prescription for Eeeee-ram Burney,” the clerk says.
Thirty mispronunciations later, I begin to get a little irritated. At this point, Daddy’s name is the only thing he knows about himself. He’ll forget that, too, eventually. Or maybe he’ll start pronouncing his name Eeeee-ram, along with the rest of the world.
In the meantime, though, he can still say, “My name is Hiram Burney.” He says it with an air of pride, pronouncing the “h” and the long “i.” It’s the only thing he remembers, the only thing he has left.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)