Scene and heard: What's in a name? Plenty when you can't remember

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cheryl should have enlisted. In the military, everyone wears their name on the chest.

It's a curse, of that I am sure. I remember the entire 1959 lineup of the Chicago White Sox and every word to the song "Different Drum." I know all of my old phone numbers, every address in every city where I've lived and, unfortunately, the recipe for a concoction called "Tuna Mushroom Noodle Surprise."

I can tell you the hairstyle I wore in 1984, the layout of my grandparents' living room circa 1964 and the ending of every Agatha Christie novel.

What I can't remember are names. I know many folks who are able to remember names with ease, most of them teachers, one of those my husband.

I am convinced, in fact, that if my high school algebra teacher ran into me at the grocery store he would start right in on me. "Cheryl," he'd admonish, "why were you drawing girls with beehive hairdos instead of completing my mathematics assignment in fourth period?" Actually as I write this, I realize that I can't remember his name. Mr. Integer? Mr. Exponent? Mr. The symbol, usually a letter, represents an unknown number?

I know there are ways to remember names. I've been told more than once to use mnemonics. Wikipedia says that "Mnemonics rely on associations between easy-to-remember constructs which can be related back to the data that is to be remembered. This is based on the principle that the human mind much more easily remembers spatial, personal, surprising, sexual or humorous or otherwise meaningful information than arbitrary sequences."

Sounds great, right? Well, here's a little cautionary tale for you. When I was 14, my family drove from Chicago to Union Pier, Mich., for a week's vacation. We stayed in a small cottage that could best be described as "camp," using every single connotation of that word.

I was in full adolescent angst that summer. I was convinced no one liked me, my parents were embarrassing, the pimple on my cheek would never go away and my lot in life was to forever live in a body that could not swim, roller skate or comb my hair into a French twist.

I noticed a family staying at a fancy resort near our cottage. That resort was where I aspired, where I was meant, to be. Sneaking peeks at the family's eldest daughter, Judy, I realized she was everything I was not. Tall, blond, clear of complexion, agile of body. All my anger and insecurity manifested itself in my dislike of this girl. Judy Brodsky, Judy Brodsky, Judy Brodsky. Even today the name stays with me. I cannot forget it.

My mother also had a hard time remembering names. She would try to use a mnemonic device as an aid. The example I think of right away is Shirley Temple. She had curly hair around her temples. Shirley -- Curly. Under the right circumstances, it works. She was trying to teach me.

And so it came to be that when I talked about Judy to my mother, I always called her "Judytheslut." Yes, I know that isn't nice. Yes, I know I shouldn't have done that. Yes, I know. Nevertheless, Judytheslut she was.

One day my mother and I were walking along the beach, and Judy and her mother walked towards us. "I hate her," I hissed to my mother. "I hate Judytheslut. And I hate Mrs. Brodsky, too."


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