Instead of settling on “Nelly” or “Mabel” as a proper label for me, skirmishes with volunteered names that ranged from impressive biblical appellations to floozy epithets kept my parents in such a dither that weeks slipped quietly over the calendar before my identity was tagged. Naming seemed to have suddenly acquired importance, and Mother and Father made repeated flights above common levels to descend in tailspins. Perhaps disappointment that I was not a son, or my utter lack of bulk, dammed their ideas.
Brother had been christened Maynard Dawson for two Ann Arbor friends with commendable celerity. When three years later a daughter burst upon the scene they had seized the name Melilla out of the clouds of their imaginations and attached it to their animated infant.
The third child had drawn a plain Mary, probably a religious carry-over, for Mother used to say that she thought every family should have one. Since her sister had buried three Mary’s there had to be a strong reason for hanging on to any name that had had so unpropitious a start.
Then I came along and the works jammed. Finally in a quandary Mother wrote to Father’s Brother Bob and asked him to co-operate.
Uncle Bob was a gay and handsome young bachelor. He had lived with our parents when Mary was a baby. During that period, Mother had reaped a harvest of calls and invitations from both desirable and un-ingratiating young females seized with the irresistible compulsions to ring her bell at hours when the men were at home. Then doctors had ordered Uncle Bob to go west for his health, and when I arrived he was practising law in the wilds of Lake City, Colorado, miles from a telegraph station. From the date of his banishment, Mother and he had carried on a gossipy correspondence. Mother was very fond of him and his next letter settled my fate.
“The name I have chosen”, he wrote, “has three letters and is spelled ‘U-N-A’, and let it be written Una Howell and may her life be what the name signifies: Truth and Purity.”
There were no cinema queens in those days, only cigarette ladies who though bewitching were not mentioned in polite society. For that reason my handsome Uncle had had to have recourse to literature. Uncle Bob was an avid reader and between the pages of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, had found my predecessor. I daresay he had hoped that I would emulate her also. As for Spenser, even he had found it expedient to give a premium of the name and had thrown in a lion for good measure.
I have never had a lion but I confess that on occasion I could have made good use of one. Up to a ripe age I have never met a ‘Una’, though I have read of three actresses who supported the name, and several negro children were proudly christened in my honor. Occasionally I read of one in private life but bearing that pseudonym I am skeptical as to the quality of the privacy. For publicity purposes Una is the perfect appellation. It never escapes attention and comment, not even on the smallest bank check.
Mother was delighted with Uncle Bob’s selection. It was as short as I and she clamped it on me and the records with speed and precision. Her letter of appreciation to him was still unanswered when he relinquished his earthly attorneyship to please before a higher court; at thirty-three – “the same age as Jesus” – Mother was wont to say with great tenderness.
I accepted the name with the other inheritances but I never liked it. It was too conspicuous.
Memories of my first years are largely tied to the weather. I recall being stuck in the red clay mud until pried out by good Samaritans; hail stones as big as hen’s eggs that shattered all the greenhouse windows; frightful electrical storms; and summer heat so intense that I can still feel the burning grass around my bare ankles. So associated is the song of the locust with blistering heat that it is the strongest memory of Springfield. There must have been days when the atmosphere was to my liking yet their impressions have not lingered.
Six winters deposited their sleet and snow on doorsteps and windows, and as many summers flagged the spirits of the family before I was allowed to make my debut at school. Winters were short and we faced them in red flannel style and for pre-school preparation thumbed a back-less compendium of natural history. No one ever entered in the middle of the year. September alone invited the young idea to shoot. Kindergartens were unborn. Besides children didn’t need to be taught to play. The public believed that six was the first age at which a child could be expected to think so when I was six Lilly took me by the hand and walked me to Central School when Sophia Boyd, a friend of Mother’s taught first grade.
Going to school was an achievement I had long aspired to enjoy and the day was important. Mother had bought me a slate with a red flannel covered frame, and a school bag within whose folds knocked about a precious article. It was an ounce bottle on the metal cap of which rested a round curly sponge. Inside the glass receptacle soapy water urped gushingly. When my slate should need cleaning, the wet sponge would turn the trick without the aid from my salivary glands. A clean white cloth was folded about the bottle’s neck to do duty in place of my sleeve. I was the last member to be introduced to the halls of education and my feet skipped easily and my tongue chatted noisily as bag in hand I kept Lilly company.
Central School stood on the summit of Booneville hill overlooking the valley where the Jordan river in its wettest moments trickled over brown-colored stones. From its height, once at midnight, I had shiveringly watched a packing-plant in which hams were stored, flare against the sky. The first cabin had been built on this site.
Father always took us to fires when he could, and when this one promised to be a holocaust he rushed to the middle room where Mary and I slept and leaning over the trundle-bed said in excited tones:
“Mary, Una, get up and dress yourselves. There’s a big fire downtown.”
Father loved the sensation and once our eyes were opened we could hear the fire-bell clanging the location, and our excitement was no less than his.
It took some minutes to reach the scene but the red glow that lighted the sky guided us. Father had a showman’s interest in making each fire a major excitement and after a rude awakening from sleep our teeth rattled from cold and tension. He piloted us now to the pinnacle from which we could look down on the spectacular scene raging below us on the bank of the river.
The building was a toothpick contraption cheaply constructed and wholly inflammable. Father pointed out the dangers facing the firemen fighting to save the property of a fellow citizen. He could speak eloquently and his discourses were studded with moral nuggets set for our education. It was a vivid experience. The sound of collapsing walls, the odor of burning meats, and the skies reddened with licking flames fixed it on my gelatinous memory with photographic speed.
Now a year later as Lilly and I covered the same ground near the school, a keen memory of that experience stirred my senses. I heard again the sounds of crackling grease. I saw the flaming walls lighting the dark valley below. Even the odor of savory hams returned to make my mouth water. I was excited all over as we walked between the posts that took the place of a gate at Central School.
The building was old, three stories high, and housed all the grades including High School. The first grade room was close to the entrance of the building. It had a Dutch door with an upper panel which swung separately and through which the teacher could look out as if it were a window. Mrs. Boyd loved teaching and, as I was shoved into the room by Lilly, she came forward to greet me.
“Well, well, so you are going to be a first grader are you Una?”
Very red in the face I answered:
And turned to be closer to my guardian sister but the said sister had disappeared up the staircase.
“Come with me, Una, and we’ll get you enrolled,” Mrs. Boyd said in her most officious manner. She led the way to her table which faced what to my eyes seemed to be endless rows of seats occupied by children and their mothers.
“Now give me your full name,” she said in a brisk voice.
“Una Howell”, I replied in the best whisper I could command.
“Haven’t you a middle name, Una?”
“No, I haven’t a middle name.”
“U-N-A. You are the only one of that name I have ever known.”
Then to the group she said:
“Children, how many of you have ever heard the name ‘Una’?”
“Put your hands up.”
No one ever had.
Up to this time the children had been whispering to one another or looking inside the desks that were to house their belongings. Now a deep silence ensued and in its wake I aged several years. I wished that I had a common name, anything but Una, as Mrs. Boyd bustled about like a mother hen in search of a worm.
Nowadays children have a rich experience in the most average public school. In the ‘eighties’ methods of making learning interesting were unborn. Reading was taught by the chart method, and we first learned the alphabet. When it came to arithmetic, Mrs. Boyd had her own copyrighted system. No one at home had thought to prepare me for this revelation. Today teachers recognize a squeamish child and temper the wind a trifle. It was not so in the elegant ‘eighties.’
Mrs. Boyd’s stock questions in beginner’s arithmetic was: “How many fingers have you?”
Even the most average child would have learned that at home, so when she asked me I faintly murmured:“Ten.”
“Yes," Mrs. Boyd assured me, “That is correct, but you see I have eleven, Una.”
With that disclosure she held up her two hands and pointed to the extra finger that grew out from the side of her thumb. Then she stepped back and smiled happily.
Something inside me plopped. It probably was my breakfast but dear Mrs. Boyd kept chattering on unconscious of the shock she had delivered, knowing only an elation in having a corner on a unique method of teaching. Probably she never knew. I told no one but from that moment I made a point of never handing her anything I could avoid. I was so afraid of seeing or touching that extra finger.
In the middle of the morning we had recess which was announced by the ringing of a gong. I never liked the sound of the bell. It made me think of the firebell, but it was a harbinger of freedom and that thought tempered its blatancy. At my first school recess I wanted to wait for Lilly or Mary but Mrs. Boyd shooed us out on to the gravelly school yard.
“Now you stay over in that section,” she said pointing to a small patch of green, “so the big children won’t knock you down.”
Obedience was my nickname so I headed for the sacred patch. Girls who were older always mothered the tenderfeet and now a number of them invaded our territory.
“Hasn’t she long hair?” one of them said, fingering my braid. Another asked my name. I told her in the apologetic manner that I reserved for that question.
“Is it Eunice?”
I repeated emphatically. There was only one name that I hated to be called more than Eunice and that was ‘Uner.’ Judge Geiger’s wife was a Bostonian and she called me ‘Uner’ and because I was plump poked me with her parasol. Besides tickling me it lacerated my dignity and I found it hard to bear.
I was really glad when the gong put an end to the interrogation though I was still heavy of spirit because I had an odd name. As I marched up the steps I tried to think of a nickname that would eliminate notoriety.
As I passed Mrs. Boyd in the hall and she reached down to take hold of me to straighten the line, I remembered her finger and a shiver chased down my spine. I wondered if all Mother’s friends (for there were several more of them teaching) would have surplus digits.
When school was out I hung about the hall and waited for Mary. I was eager to get away from my first-hand encounter with education. I hadn’t long to wait.
“Let’s stop at Pap’s office. Maybe he’ll give us a nickel for candy,” Mary suggested as she and I capered along the backstreet known as Olive.
Father’s office was on the second floor of a small building at the southwest corner of the square, and we climbed the dirty stairs and timidly opened the door. We were never sure of finding him alone. If a client were not there, a fellow lawyer was apt to be smoking with him. Father liked us to call on him and he loved to have us ask him for something. He made it easy by smiling with amused pride and we wisely never rose above the five-cent level when we wanted sweets. He was alone on this occasion with his feet on the table as we turned the knob and looked in.
“Come in, girls.”
The room in which Father met his clients was somewhat dingy. The walls had not been papered for some time, and smoke and dust had traced the usual ribs of inner lathing on the ceiling and the walls. The huge table that occupied the center of the room was littered with papers; a notary’s seal; inkpots and pens; while an old-fashioned cuspidore of brass and a large open wire waste basket stood on the floor beside it.
At the right of the door a small Hall’s safe stuck out past the window overlooking the street. On two sides of the room between the long windows high glass-doored bookcases guarded the lawbooks that made up Father’s library. Opposite the safe in a dark corner, an open desk with endless drawers stood dark and silent. Two swivel chairs of yellow finish, and a cane-seated straight chair, completed the ensemble of the office.
“Well, how did you enjoy your first day of school, Una?” Father inquired.
“All right. I’m in the first grade,” I proudly added.
“That’s fine, and how do you like your teacher?” he inquired.
“Pretty well,” I answered. I had no intention of discussing the extra finger episode. I hadn’t even told Mary about that, and now I put an end to further questioning by asking for a nickel.
“And what would you do with a nickel?” Father asked indulgently as his hand slid into his trouser pocket.
“Buy taffy and butterscotch with it,” I replied with bravado. The nickel now came forward.
Our objective easily accomplished, we wasted no further time on amenities. We scampered down the street to the candyshop on the corner, bought our goodies and set out for home.
In the next week I cogitated over my name problem and finally hit upon an ultimate solution though it could not be effected immediately. I kept it to myself but it gave me courage. I would get married as soon as I was old enough. Then I would be Mrs. Somebody and no one would know that my name was Una.
It had never occurred to me that my family could help me in this matter. Names were classed with eyes and hair and you accepted them along with your brothers and sisters as part of your lot. I hadn’t discovered then that Father had remodeled the family name to suit his taste. That was to come later.