You know why there are so many Debbies around my age? Because of Debbie Reynolds. She was one of The Superstars of the ’50s.
My mother couldn’t think of anything to name me (true story), so she gave me the same name as a second cousin I only met once in my life (who, ironically, is the only other family member I know of who is also legally blind without glasses/contacts) – Debra Jean. But I’m sure that cousin, just a bit older than me, was named “Debbie” because of Debbie Reynolds. It’s true. We have that name because of Carrie Fisher’s mom.
I will remember her as a happy, lighthearted, bubbling presence, even though my favorite movie of hers was “Mother.” She was sublime. The world became a little less effervescent yesterday, Dec. 28, 2016…. and what pinching tragedy that she died in a fog of grief and despair over her own daughter’s untimely death. What an inappropriate way for THE happy, bubbly quintessential Debbie to go.
2016 — that was a real dick move.
So, in honor of Debbie Reynolds, the namesake for a generation of little girls in the ’50s and ’60s, I’m dusting off this column I wrote in Oct. 1998, all about Debbies, and about my defection from the Debbie Club and decision to insist on going by “Debra.”
RIP, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher two. You were both unsinkable, and shall always be remembered as such.
It’s time to get rid of something that doesn’t fit anymore
It’s an uncomfortable fit, and I can’t squeeze into it anymore. No, not my jeans. My name. Debbie. It’s like being just another pearl on the strand. But I’m more the drop-pearl type. I want the whole dang chain to myself. I don’t like blending in. But when you’re a Debbie, you don’t have a choice.
How common are Debbies? In my fourth grade class, there were five of us. Rather than nurturing our individuality, the teacher solved the problem by numbering us. I was Debbie 3. It felt like one of those mass-produced androids in a science fiction movie.
Adulthood was no better. When I worked for the county, if someone called out “Hey, Debbie” over the sea of cubicles, a choir of responses wafted through the room as half the Debbies in the western hemisphere (all of whom seemed to work for Yolo County) responded in unison.
There were so many of us that one of my harried co-workers commented that she’d like to be a Debbie too. Why, on earth, I asked, would anyone want to be another Debbie?
“Easy,” she replied. “That way, I could be anonymous.”
Anonymity. That pretty much sums up Debbieness.
Blame it on Debbie Reynolds. In the late ’50s, half the mothers in America named their daughters after that cute, perky movie star. Except for my mom. Oh, no. I wasn’t named after Debbie Reynolds. I was named after Mom’s cousin.
Why her cousin? Was she intelligent? Beautiful? Talented? Nope, none those. Mom said she just couldn’t think of anything, and Debbie seemed like a pretty good name, so she picked that one. Creativity was not Mom’s forte.
At least all the other Debbies could brag about being named after a movie star. Me? I was named after someone whose most outstanding feature, as far as I can tell, is a severe case of myopia. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Besides the overall genericness of Debbiedom, the name and I are simply a bad match. When I think “Debbie,” I think blond hair, ponytails and a head that doesn’t cast a shadow in bright sunlight. Nobody takes Debbies seriously. How intimidating can you be when you have a name that ends in that “ie” sound? Debbie, Susie, Tammy, Kimmy. . .it’s one step from being named Buffy or Missy. And that’s what they name poodles.
I always wanted a serious name, one that didn’t have an “ie” nickname attached to it, like Elaine or Diane. I always thought I’d make a good Brenda, particularly since the name means “troublemaker.” Now, there was a handle I could live with. But how to get people to call me that. There was the problem.
I came up with a great rationale. I was almost a Brenda already, since my given name was really Debra. If you take “Debra”, throw in an “n” and toss lightly, you get “Brenda.” Works for me.
I tried this out on my kids, and explained that I was supposed to be named Brenda, but my mother dropped my name on the floor when I was born and the “N” broke. The only name she could spell with the remaining letters was “Debra.”
You’d think they could indulge me. But no. One child just raised an eyebrow. The other sniffed my coffee to see what was in it.
Sure, they’ll believe that a roly-poly man in a furry red suit will float down the chimney and leave them toys once a year, but they won’t buy a simple “Mom dropped my name” tale. This is my thanks for bringing them into this world.
I give up. If I can’t convince my kids, I’ll never convince anyone else either. I’ll never be a Brenda. But this made me reconsider my given name. I’d never asked people to call me Debra because I’d associated the name with punishment. It was always the preamble to a spanking. When I hear “Debra,” I hear the attached exclamation point, as in “Debra! Get your butt in here!”
Honest, Mom, I didn’t mean to lock my sister in the dog house.
Even so, in the interest of shedding that generic Debbie label, I’ve teased out my irrational childhood associations from my given name, and I’m trying to make the transition to being a Debra. The hard part is getting everyone to cooperate.
You can dye your hair, get a nose job or have your bustline enhanced, and no one will bat an eye. But try and change your name, and people act like you need to have your medication adjusted.
But I’m sticking to it. I keep correcting people, keep reminding them, it’s Debra, not Debbie. Slowly but surely, I’ll have everyone retrained. I may not end up a Brenda, but at least I won’t be a Debbie anymore.
I just hope all those other Debbies don’t get the same idea. There’s only room for one pearl on this chain.
(Originally published in the Winters Express and Davis Enterprise, Oct. 4, 1998)