My father had three names. No, I’m not talking about the three names that most people have, though he had those too: James Robert Coburn. But the names he went by were sometimes different.
He was born in Kentucky, the youngest son, so of course everyone referred to him as Jim-Bob. His relatives always called him that. In fact, when I went to his funeral service in Kentucky (he had one in Ohio, too), I had to remember to introduce myself to various mourners as “Jim-Bob’s daughter.”
When he went to work at a government job, people called him simply Jim or James. I still remember that when he went off to work, he wore a tie and shiny black shoes and smelled of Vitalis and Aqua Velva. This is the mental picture I still have of him when I was a child. When he drove us anywhere, my mother would say, “Home, James,” as if he were our chauffeur. (And since my mother didn’t drive, I guess he was.)
His straight-laced, government-approved persona changed when he retired on a medical disability. He struggled against multiple myeloma for nearly 15 years before he died. (I hope there are better treatments now.) He went back to his roots then, again taking on his Jim-Bob persona, though none of his relations were around to call him that. He started wearing jeans, plaid shirts, sneakers or boots, and often a cowboy hat. He wouldn’t shave for several days at a time. I think his spirit felt better then, even though his body kept on betraying him.
When I was in my teens, he acquired his third name, and it was my doing. There was one room in our house called “the sewing room,” where my mother kept her sewing machine, piles of fabric, and jars of buttons. I suppose these days it would be called a “craft room,” as my father often set up a card table there and went about his hobby, reloading spent brass, using a hand-operated device to resize the cartridges and seat the lead and primer. I think he enjoyed the process more than the idea of being thrifty. (He made the bullets himself by melting lead and squeezing them in a mold. My mother made him do that part outside. But I digress.)
Those were the days when a house had only one telephone, and ours was located in the sewing room. This provided little privacy when I was talking on the phone with one of my friends, as teens are wont to do. My father would often kibitz, making little remarks based on the one side of the conversation that he could hear. Every so often, I would say, “Melvin, you keep out of this,” which was an oft-repeated phrase on some TV show or other.
The name stuck among me and my friends. I introduced him that way so often, some people were surprised when they learned he was ever called anything else. (I suppose this was part of my maturing process, when I wanted something to call my parents other than Dad and Mom. My mother acquired the nickname Muzz, for equally obscure reasons.)
Far from getting upset or claiming we were disrespectful, he embraced the name Melvin. (Once he had a leather keychain made, and the name was forever after spelled Melvyn.) It was even included (in parentheses) in his obituary just so my friends could figure out who died. This mightily pissed off my sister, who never acknowledged the nickname.
There were a lot of things I didn’t know about my father, especially his service in the Army in WWII, but this I do know: His Melvyn persona was the one I liked best, the one with which I was able to connect more deeply, and the version I carry with me to this day.
(The picture that heads this post isn’t a very good one, but it’s as good a way as any to remember him. It was taken at my wedding reception, after he had shed his much-loathed tie, which at least he wore for the actual wedding ceremony.)