It was the summer of ’80 and I was almost fifteen. The Milwaukee Brewers were still a couple years away from their run for the World Series, but I was singularly focused on (and desperately in love with) Robin Yount. He was 23 and was, as far as I was concerned, the cutest shortstop to ever play the position.
As president of the local Kiwanis Club, my dad had somehow scored the opportunity for some time with several of the players and he brought my brother and me along. My memory for the details has faded, except for being down on the field, face to face with my imagined boyfriend, hands trembling as I clutched a photo I’d cut out from the Milwaukee Journal’s special pullout section from the previous year which highlighted each member of the team.
“She’s called Debbie,” my dad told Robin, while I focused on not passing out. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a minute before we were being shuffled off the field again and I dared to look at the autograph.
I was mortified. I mean, quotes around my name??? I remember fuming at my dad.
“Why would you say she’s CALLED Debbie????”
I don’t recall his response. When you’re fuming, there’s often no room to hear someone’s explanation—however logical and well-meaning it might be.
The whole episode was a painful reminder of how my name had become a source of major conflict between my mother and me. You see, my legal name is Deborah. Deborah is one of those names like Elizabeth, Robert, Katherine or Thomas—all subject to varied treatment usually depending on the preference of the person to whom the name belongs.
As a child, I was Debbie and life was fairly uncomplicated. All of that changed around the time I started first grade. Among other difficult memories from that time is the one of my mother expressing her displeasure with my name.
“We should have named you Laura…” she’d say, wistfully.
I don’t know about you, but as a first grader, that was not a great thing to hear. And it wasn’t like she only said it the one time. She’d say it often enough that my self confidence started to falter. When I started fourth grade at a new school, she instructed me to tell my teachers to call me Deborah.
The problem was that I didn’t feel like Deborah. And fourth grade is about the time when kids hone in on any little thing to tease you about. So Deborah became De-BRA—accompanied by gales of laughter. I wish I could say I joined in, but I only recall feeling humiliated.
At home, I was mostly Debbie, but my brother called me Deb. It all became so cumbersome.
By the time I got to middle school, I’d had enough. In seventh grade, I defied my mother and asked to be called Debbie, thus setting the stage for my dad to clumsily request that Robin Yount sign my picture using the name I wanted to be called.
“She’s called Debbie.”
I fight back tears when I think of how he tried to advocate for me, in all the little ways that would turn out to be so damn important.
In high school I was Russ. In college, a few close friends called me Deb, otherwise I was Debbie. I always introduced myself as Debbie. I liked myself as Debbie.
The first time I wondered about whether a Debbie could be taken seriously was at the big law firm where I worked during my later college years. I had a boss named Debbie—not Deborah— and she had to have been close to middle age. I had another boss named Barbara—not Barb. And don’t even think about calling her Barb.
As a practicing lawyer, I decided to use Deborah on my signature block and when in court. Even though it came with a gravatas appropriate for a grownup with the job I was doing, I never felt like a Deborah except when I was in a courtroom. Reading that version of my name in the newspaper was a whole other trip.
A friend once let me have it in a judge’s chambers when I slipped and called him Bobby. I get it. There are some names that just feel diminutive. In my situation, the Little Debbie brand is case in point.
But I digress…
A couple years ago, when I was finishing up the manuscript for Crossing Fifty-One, I put D.L. Russell on the title page. After all, I’d shared quite a bit of personal information in the book, and the idea of putting my name on the cover felt scary. But then I had to ask myself: who IS D.L. Russell? Certainly nobody I knew. That left two other options—Deborah and Debbie. Deborah seemed like a name that could be taken seriously. It looked good on a book cover.
But in the end, Debbie is who I am.
Names matter. I'm glad you stuck to your guns.
Names are/can be defining.
And if I can say, 'D L Russell' comes across as a writer's name. I like it