For most of my life I’ve had a minimum of seven names — Max Thomas Matthew Russell — and my twin’s middle name, Stephen, plus, Twin and One of the Twins. Names are a handy way of organizing my world and sorting my relationships.
I know who calls me by which name, and I am kind of adamant about the one each person uses to address me. If they use the wrong one, I don’t feel like they’re talking to me. Sometimes I ignore people who use the wrong one. If they call me Steve, I know they’re just confusing me with him, and I will either carry on as though I am him or I will tell them I’m not.
A friend thought he had stumbled upon me in an Ohio restaurant and had a nice conversation with me. He said the person “told me his name was Steve. I talked to him for 10 minutes, and if he had told me he was you, I would’ve believed him.”
Identical twins get used to being called by the wrong name. My twin and I have trouble telling ourselves apart in photos from childhood, and if he and I swap clothes and glasses, I still have some trouble knowing which one’s me.
I love having my own variety of names. In business, in other languages and on international trips, I am Max T. In publications, I am Max T. On an online video forum I am Matthew. On previous jobs and among my relatives, I am some version of Thomas. In each case, if a person calls me by the wrong name, I notice and I am uncomfortable. But if my kids want to get my attention in a crowd, my first name usually does the trick.
The newspaper often attributes my columns to Max Russell, my deceased father who doesn’t write for the paper. He and my twin and I all have the same first and last names.
An interesting problem has arisen. Several of my nephews have been addressing me with a form of Thomas, leaving off “Uncle.” When this happens, I feel they’re talking to someone else, just as I would feel if my kids called me anything besides Dad.
So I’m having to deal with this. How do I feel that these nephews are talking to me when they feel they are? I guess I just need to explain it to them. I know they’ll get the point.
But here’s the thing: our family gatherings are kind of big, and many of my cousins also are my nephews’ cousins. Many are the same age as my nephews. My cousins call me Tom, although a few used to call me Mr. Russell (which was weird). After lots of happy conversation among our crowd, some nephews begin calling me Tom in the most natural way.
But I don’t feel like they’re talking to me. I wonder, What does it take for me to feel like someone is talking to me when they’re looking at me and talking to me?
A classmate in Biology 101 at Honey Creek High School poked his head out a window one day and shouted: “Hey, Newt!” Our teacher was helping other summer-school students with a project outside. He marched in and told the boy, “That’s Mr. Johnson to you!”
That settled that. Newt was not the teacher. Mr. Johnson was, and we all knew it. Addressing him by the appropriate name left all the relationships in context and in our comfort zone.
My two-year-old grandson said to me last week, “Thanks, Tom.” Everyone giggled. He was just repeating what his father said.
We accumulate names as we go through life. I’ve been Twin, One of the Twins, Tomás, Tommy, Tom, Max, Max T., Mr. Russell, Señor Russell, babe, Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Tom, Matthew, Russell, Russ and more. As far as I’m concerned it’s a great way to keep things organized.