Early in my girlhood, I became aware my mother and father called each other a name I visualized as “Mi” although they both pronounced it “Me.” I had no idea what it meant or where it came from but knew it was not a name I was supposed to use. It had something to do with whatever went on between them that didn’t concern me (lower case), their daughter.
“Mi” was used more affectionately than another mysterious word they sometimes called each other — the one I visualized as “Bubi” but sounded like “Booby.” “Bubi” was matter-of-fact; “Mi” meant something a trifle more intimate. I eventually figured out “Mi.” It was the first syllable of both their names in Russian — his, “Mikhail,” or “Mischa,” hers, Mira (pronounced “Meera”). Since they were using it while speaking English, it was a trace of their early days together in Baku before they emigrated — the memory of which was exclusively theirs. The provenance of “Bubi” remains unknown to me to this day.
My father sometimes had another word for my mother: “Youshka.” It showed up in the context of satisfaction with or approval of something she had produced around the house — a good dinner, nicely ironed handkerchiefs, the fragrance of lemon-scented Old English furniture polish. When reminiscing about his boyhood to me many years later, he once mentioned his family had had a servant called “Youshka” whom he had liked very much; she had brought back candy for him from her day off. I don’t know if my mother ever heard this anecdote. She can’t have been very fond of being called “Youshka” though; she never called him “Youshka” back.
Bill recalls his parents called each other “M.” “M” was the initial letter of each of their first names: Morris and Mary. (Bill’s grandmother, who was Mary’s mother, called her daughter Miriam. But that began with “M” too.) No one else called either of them “M.” It was just for, and between, them.
My first husband, when pleased with me, called me “cute sweet.” It’s scribbled all over dozens of household notes and post-its which I stuffed into a large manila envelope after reading them with increasing irritation. Whatever affection all those “cute sweets” may have contained, they sounded patronizing to me, as if I were some small something that he had acquired and was fond of but wasn’t in any way central to his existence. He was nine years older than I and over six feet tall, so I couldn’t really have called him “cute sweet” back even if I’d felt like it. It may be I never threw the “cute sweets” away because as long as I felt I had to stay in the marriage, that might have been bad luck. Then I forgot about the envelope after things went from not-so-good to worse and he stopped calling me that or using it in little household notes. An upside to keeping them: although the last “cute sweet” was probably written in 1959, because I run across the envelope from time to time while looking for something else in the basement, I still remember all those “cute sweets” well enough to tell you about them.
My second husband didn’t go in for pet names, So any pet names arising in my marriage to him were the ones I used with my small children when tucking them into bed at night, Since they would now be extremely embarrassed were I even to hint at what they were (if indeed they remember them), I won’t. When they reached adolescence, the pet names fell into disuse. But they developed special names for me and their father when speaking about us to each other, which I got to hear but he didn’t. I was “the Ya!” and he was “the Uh!” I have my own views on what ” the Ya!” and “the Uh!” meant, but if I go there, we will need to commence an analysis of that marriage and our somewhat different approaches to parenting that would be unwise. Besides, “the Ya!” and “the Uh!” are not pet names within the meaning of this post. I believe they too were abandoned by the time their users reached college.
Bill and I also began our life together with pet names for each other, reserved for that private place between the sheets where they will stay. All I will say about them is that (1) these names are not based on either the initials or sound of any syllable of our respective first names, which isn’t what you wanted to know, anyway; and (2) a pet name as I conceive it must be accepted by both parties, the one who speaks and the one to whom it refers.
As witness the day when I suddenly burst out not with my usual pet name for Bill, but with “Baba!”
“Baba?” he not unreasonably inquired.
But when I explained I had no idea where it came from but it meant him and it was good, he soon began calling me Baba too. Not always, you understand. Just, impulsively, now and then. I even made up the first two lines of a little song about it. (You will have to create the extremely short tune for yourself.) “I’m a Baba; You’re a Baba; We are Babas two.”
When I connect with my brain, I suspect that “Baba” is a corruption of “Baby.” But believe me when I say that at such times as “Baba” falls from my lips, my brain is usually in sleep mode.
Then came the cats, Sasha and Sophie. Sometimes, when one of them was being particularly adorable, I began calling that cat Baba, too. What do you know? Before you could blink an eye a couple of times, we were a family of Big Babas and Little Babas!
Is “Baba” sufficiently acknowledged by the cats to qualify as a name accepted by both parties and therefore a bona fide pet name of the sort I’ve been discussing? (As distinct from a “pet” name given to dogs, cats, or parakeets.) I believe I can assure you that it is, at least as far as the cats “accept” that their individual names are Sasha and Sophie. They do know the difference between those two “S” names and sometimes come, correctly, when individually called. And when they feel like it. By now they will also come to the sound of “Baba” — when they feel like it. Of course, they may simply be coming to the sound of my voice, the voice of the treat-and-food provider. But these are mysteries beyond the purview of this post.
Lately, when Sophie — the dumber of the two — is particularly slow to grasp something, such as that it’s okay to eat from her dish while Sasha is eating from her own dish — I have begun to call her “Poo-poo,” or “Poozie.” Bill is still trying to wrap his mind around that one — “Why? Why?” he asks — so it may not become shared family vocabulary. If it doesn’t, it will simply be my way of venting annoyance that both our Little Babas are not equally brilliant (for cats).
How did I fall into this seemingly nonsensical post, anyway? Because if I can’t think of something to write next, I look at the title of the blog. This time, it occurred to me that when one of us survives the other (as will certainly happen when two people are getting old together), the pet names for each other will go too. But not the pet names we gave together to our relatively young cats. And that will be a comfort.
When my father died, my mother had no one to call “Mi” and “Bubi” anymore, except perhaps in her heart. She didn’t even have cats. But in her last years she did start feeding a non-feral stray cat, lost or left behind, who came to her door every morning and evening for the cream and tuna she put out. “Why does she keep coming?” she asked me ingenuously. She looked forward to it though. So I do hope she gave the cat a pet name she didn’t share with me. A name that was private — just between her and the cat.
A pet name means more and more as you get older. It means you’re still not alone.