Unlike your sisters Oatie and Robert John, you had no nickname growing up. People, including your family, called you Alison.
You can remember your father, the bestower of nicknames, studying you one day and then trying out the nickname “Champ.” That lasted for about a day, whereas Oatie and Robert John still answer to their nicknames.
It seemed as if, from the get-go, you were not the nickname type. Which was all right, because you always liked your name. Alison. You still do. You like its one-l-instead of two-l-ness, its three-syllableness. You used to write it over and over in notebooks, in loopy middle-school script, when you got bored in class.
You drew the line at dotting the i with a heart, star or flower, though. (Is that evidence of a Puritanical streak? Did the Puritans dislike nicknames?)
Your nicknameless childhood passed and you went off to college, up there in the mountains, and life expanded in all directions. You met your best friend the day you arrived. Within days she was calling you Allie. That was your first real nickname. She is still your best friend, and she still calls you Allie. Sometimes she says “Alison” in a certain tone of voice if she needs you to listen up, and you listen up. You have nicknames for her too: El, or EBHBSP.
Some people find it almost impossible to call a person by their given name, their proper, legal name. This sort of person bestows nicknames instantly and without thinking. You work with such a person at the university where you teach in the fall. She is one of the reasons why you love teaching there.
“Hey, Allie,” she said the second time she ever saw you, her brown eyes full of fun. “You don’t mind if I call you Allie, do you?”
Nope. You didn’t. And don’t, as long as she and your best friend and your sister Oatie are the ones calling you Allie.
She has nicknames for all your other friends there at the university too. Some she calls only by their last names, others by shortened first names, and still others by nicknames which last only a day, or an hour. She’s a Jersey girl; talk and laughter come easily to her. Maybe that makes a nicknaming difference.
To this day, almost everyone calls you by your full first name. Because you’re not a Jersey girl? Because you give off a don’t-mess-with-my-name vibe? Because you never dotted the i in Alison with a heart or star or flower?
There is one nickname, though, that a very few people who know you very well use around you. This nickname seems to arise in each of them spontaneously, and each, over the years, began using it without asking first –“hey, do you mind if I call you _______?”– or even seeming to think about it.
This nickname crosses many years and much geography and is confined, again, to a very few.
When others who don’t know you well use this nickname, having heard those others use it, your entire body tenses. No. You have no right. Outwardly, you might smile politely, but inwardly, you bristle and fling up walls against the invasion.
From the original users, though, the ones who spontaneously arose with the nickname, it sounds exactly right. They don’t ask if they can use it, you barely notice (but you do notice) when they first do, and something inside you shifts.
There must be something more to nicknames than you consciously know. There is so much in a name, after all; the same must be true or truer for a nickname.
The truth is that everyone who begins to call you by this nickname is someone you adore, someone who loves you back. This nickname is a name you didn’t choose and wouldn’t, in any other circumstance, like. But here? It means that you have been seen. You are known. You can let down your guard.
Sometimes it seems as if, on some level, you walk through life waiting to hear this name.