I guess my grandfather could have received the name “Chili,” because…, well…, maybe he liked chili. But, I never saw him eating it. Or maybe it was really supposed to be “Chilly,” as in he didn’t like cold weather the same way I don’t like cold weather. Now, that makes sense, but I don’t know if that’s the reason either, and I’m actually not even sure about the spelling.
Not everyone had nicknames. It seemed to be reserved mostly for the male members. Here’s a few more…, my cousin, the oldest son of my father’s younger brother, was called “Yogi,” like Yogi bear. His real name is Kenneth, after his dad. There was nothing about him that looked “Yogi’ish”, I mean, he didn’t go around saying anything about pickanic baskets, and yelling out “Hey BOOboo.” His brother, Jeff, was called “Day.” Maybe he kept my aunt and uncle up all hours of the day…, and then, there was “Porky,” (real name Robert), another cousin. He was kind of chunky growing up, come to think of it.
At some point, my grandfather must have thought it would be fun to stick a couple names on me and my brother. He started calling Allen, Sputnik, after the Russian rocket, and my mother had a fit. She told Allen, “don’t answer to him when he calls you that,” which put my brother in a real pickle, since he and I both had been taught to respect adults.
My grandfather then started calling me Josephine Agnes. I was spunky enough to not answer him, or to say “Stop calling me that!” I think he picked that name just because the two slapped together sound rather goofy. Maybe he thought I was goofy, but if he did, why not call me…, “Goofy?”
But, the best nickname of all was Sneaky Pete. Sneaky Pete wasn’t even a person, but you would have thought so. My grandfather loved Sneaky Pete. He had a decades long relationship going on that lasted up until the day he died, done in by the very thing he loved. Sneaky Pete was my grandfather’s jar of white lightning. He kept it “hidden” up on the top shelf in the pantry, wrapped in a brown paper bag. He’d take it down several times a day, and have a big swig of it, right in front of everyone, so the idea of “hidden,” was just a nicety.
Then, he came down with throat cancer. Everyone thought, “he’ll stop now.” He had his larynx removed and had to use that strange hand held device which made him sound like a robot when he talked. He wasn’t real good at using it either. Plus, he kept drinking, and the combo made understanding him impossible. So, when he laughed, we laughed and that about summed up the way the conversations would go from that point on.
Writers tend to use their own personal experiences, to some extent, in their stories, and Sneaky Pete certainly deserved to play a part in my first book. My main character’s father turned to alcohol over a failing marriage, and the name Sneaky Pete was too good not to include. I thought about what happened between my grandmother and grandfather. She actually left him for several weeks because of his drinking. That was almost unheard of back then, in the early 60’s. Sneaky Pete did a good job on their marriage, almost irreparable. But, my grandmother eventually went back and there good ole Sneaky Pete sat, still up on the shelf, and my grandfather kept right on drinking.
Then he had a major stroke. Grandmother took care of him. He had another one and became bed ridden, and still, she kept on caring for him. I went to visit him one day. He lay in a tiny room off the kitchen, with only a bottom sheet on the bed and one flat looking pillow because Grandma said he kept getting tangled up in the top sheet. She was afraid he’d hurt himself. He lay there, in diapers, clicking his tongue at me like you do a horse, wanting to say something, but what, I wasn’t sure. On a small wooden table sitting beside his bed, close by was Sneaky Pete. I looked at my grandmother, and she shrugged her shoulders. At that point, I suppose she figured, oh hell, why not make the old man happy in his last days?
In the end, Sneaky Pete was the only family nickname that made sense to me.
Can you see why?