First-Name Basis

When friends’ parents recognize you as a grown-up in your own right, their invitation to familiarity can feel like a burden.

Author: Erin Buckley ’08

Recently I visited the pool where I took swimming lessons growing up. I chatted with Mrs. Peterson, the mother of a childhood friend. Her daughter now lives in Italy and just gave birth to her second child. From the pool, I waved to Mrs. Peterson as she left, one towel around her waist and another slung over her arm. “Please,” she said, “you’ve known me too long. Call me Betsy.”

During the past decade, friends’ parents occasionally have invited me to start using their first names. It gives me a prick of self-consciousness; I wonder if a shift in my body position has caused the sunlight to highlight my eye wrinkles. But more so, it gives me a vacant, sad feeling, as if I have bumped into them in the changing room in the Juniors section at Kohl’s. I sense they are inappropriately seeking to reestablish themselves as peers. Is the transition necessary?

The request comes as a non sequitur in conversation as they lean toward me, granting me permission as if they are giving me the password to a speakeasy. They are welcoming me to the ranks, social signaling me as an equal, nodding toward my age, education and career. Although it comes as an invitation it feels like a burden of responsibility: like they are passing me the church collection plate or asking me to serve on a homeowners’ association board. Despite their effort to welcome me as a fellow passenger on the road, it feels like they are reminding me that my state inspection is due and, while I’m at it, why don’t I consider an oil change.

The next time I see them, I wonder if they remember granting me first-name permission. I call them by their surname, not wanting to presume familiarity or appear rude. If they correct me again I will reconsider the invitation. But my resistance is a small act of defiance, as if to say: this is the way I’ve been conditioned for years, so don’t expect me to change overnight.

There are cases where one member of a couple has explicitly given me permission and the other hasn’t, like Martha and Dr. Young. At that point I try to avoid saying either name so as not to highlight to the discrepancy.

Buckley First Name Basis
Old honorifics can be hard to discard. Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

I acknowledge that time shifts the proportionality of ages. It is one of math’s kaleidoscope tricks. A man who has a child at twenty is twice the child’s age at forty but only one-third older at sixty. The spread is like that between two evenly paced runners with staggered start times — the gap remains constant, but becomes proportionately smaller considered within the context of the entire race. And although I allow that the gap between 60 and 80 seems smaller than the gap between 5 and 25, it isn’t.

It’s not like I don’t know the first names of my friends’ parents. I’ve heard my parents address them as such for years. Of my childhood friends, I can give the first names of most of their parents: Nancy, Tom, Don, Patty, Rick, Janice, Dan. They are stored in a mental file folder as bright as the primary colors in an elementary school classroom.

And I generally don’t resist social norms. Most name changes are justified: a marriage or divorce prompting, a new identity, a “Danny” upgrading to “Daniel” in college. Although I’ll doubtless slip, I will do my best to catalogue a name under a different folder if I agree with the rationale. If I were meeting a middle-aged adult for the first time now, I would have no trouble calling them by their first name. My boss, 15 years my senior, is Jeff, and it would be strange to call him otherwise. My peers refer to him as Jeff. I have always and only known him as Jeff.

Maybe I am resisting what a parent sees in me at that moment: one who has passed some intangible but absolute threshold. It’s not as if I’m anticipating them to host me again for a Friday night sleepover or to serve me a bologna sandwich and Kool-Aid on their back deck. But maybe I don’t like that those things are irrevocably off the table, either.

As an adult it is nice to know there are more adult-like adults in the world. Even as I make big life decisions, it’s nice to know there’s a generation still ahead of me and no matter how fast I am running, I will never catch up.

Erin Buckley lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an occupational therapist.