The first time I was introduced as “Mr. Henry,” it came as a shock. The mother of one of my son Bud’s classmates, upon turning over her boy to me for an afternoon visit, cautioned him, “Now, you obey Mr. Henry and do whatever he tells you.”
That was in New Jersey, at Redeemer Lutheran Elementary School. We had noted, of course, that the teachers were called “Mrs. Frusco” or “Mrs. Sabanosh,” as opposed to the easy-going “Jay” or “Jane” or “Carly” of Bud’s Montessori pre-school in Boston. But it only dawned on us gradually that the naming protocols were different in North Jersey. The high school boys who sat next to me in the town’s mixed-age jazz band addressed the director as “Dr. Schlossberg” and other, older members as “Mr. Groh” or “Mr. Biagioli,” for example.
It is popularly supposed that things used to be this way, that children uniformly called adults my their honorifics, and that adults universally called children by their first names — English’s equivalent of the two levels of second-person address in foreign languages, “Sie” for the adults and “Du” for the kids in German, or “vous” and “tu” in French.
And it is not enough simply to remark that “progressive” parents and schools teach their children to address adults by first names. It can, of course, go to extremes, and it does, as when newly installed Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw asks children to call him Tom.
When we moved to Boston in 1990, we almost instantly fell in with two other couples, David and Claudia and Robert and Elizabeth. We all had our children at about the same time. We all lived in the same tiny Boston neighborhood, all attended the same church, and called one another by our first names. When the first child came along, Pippa, and when she began to talk, she called us by the names she knew — first names — and we didn’t think anything of it. The years rolled along, we took annual group pictures on ski trips and at Christmas, and our population gradually doubled, and the children all called us Larry and Sally or David and Claudia or Robert and Elizabeth, and that was that.
I did not think about it, because that’s the way I grew up. As far as I was concerned, we were not making any kind of statement about social organization. Instead, we simply enjoyed the extraordinary — and nowadays, rare — privilege of having three families operate almost as one.
When I think of my old Minneapolis neighborhood, it is the names I remember: Steve and Dorothy and their three kids and their big collie dog Jeff, who thought he was just another kid; Vickie and Johnny across the street, Vi and Erwin next door, and Ev and Eddie. There were some exceptions, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis were Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, for example.
In Arlington, South Dakota, where I stayed summers with my grandparents, I knew them and their friends — who were my friends too — by first names, including our preachers, who I called “Ralph” and “Jim.” I could not have respected them more.
Three summers back, when my sister, my son, my mother and I got together in Brookings for Mom’s college reunion, we drove the 20 miles to Arlington for what will probably be our last visit. We stopped at my grandparents’ old house, where the people living there welcomed us in, completely unannounced, so we could see the inside of the old place.
I kept showing Bud things — the hill where we used to ride down in a wagon, now blocked by a new garage; the cellar door we could slide down in icy weather; the scary cistern in the yard; the front porch where I played sailing ship — but being four years old, he was spaced.
“Look here, Bud,” I kept telling him. “Remember that story I told you…”
I don’t think he got much out of it.
At the cemetery, after we visited the old family plot, going back as far as Bud’s great-great-grandparents, I began to wander, looking for names.
I was not looking for Mr. and Mrs. Corey or Mr. and Mrs. Evans, or for Mrs. Liebsch. No, I was looking for Chester and Bertha and Merton and Nellie and for Laura. And I found them.