Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Typhoid Mary? No, Café Mary!

Piqued your curiosity with that ^ title?

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with Typhoid. I barely know what Typhoid is, beyond reading about that dreadful outbreak over a hundred years ago, and its silent carrier, Mary Mallon.

Discloser: Café Mary is me. This is the name I use whenever a person at a café/food counter says, “What name shall I put on this order?” For me it is always MARY.

If you’re still reading, you may be saying, “But why? Mirka is a perfectly nice name, and it is unique.”
There, precisely, lies the crux of the matter.


My café-restaurant name made its first appearance fifteen years ago, in Old Town Sacramento, California, in a tavern that looked like a throwback to the days of the Wild West.
With a dear friend and her daughter, DH and our two kids, we traveled by train from the bay area. After a lovely round of touring the Gold Rush Museum, Train Museum, and many (many) shops, we were famished. We settled on what looked like a saloon. While the kids and DH waited at a table, my friend and I made our lunch orders at the counter. Then a guy with a cowboy hat and jeans that were two sizes too small on him asked for our names.
“Stephanie,” said my friend for her order.
“I’ll get it right to you, Stephanie,” said the hunk.
“Mirka,” said I.
“”Huh? What kinda name is that?” said the hunk, whose name could have been Bo, or Chad.
I was about to do what I have to do everywhere, and spell it for him. He didn’t seem like he had the time to hear the explanation about Slavic diminutives, and how my birth name was Miriam but at the Children's House of my parents’ kibbutz there were two Miriams and my father chose Mirka so I will have some distinction, etc.
“M-I-R…” I started.
“”Nah,” said Mr. Tight Jeans. “ Don’t give me that. Give me an American name.”
I was thinking how Mirka is a Slavic diminutive of Mary. “Mary?” I said.
“I’ll get it right to you, Mary,” he said.
By the time our burgers and fries arrived at the table, I had no problem going under any name. But my kids couldn't understand why the server kept calling their mom by what, to them, was an odd name.
And so it became my café name. To this day, I think of it as my other identity for these sorts of occasions.

[A wonderful article in the New York Times reminded me, once again, how names have resonance and connotative identities. You can read it here- 


For writers, names are part of the story, and not a trivial part, either. To me, it is also part of how I write my life.

17 comments:

  1. I am often reminded I have a weirdo name and looks. I go by V or Jay or Christy or by Michael (sometimes they wonder why I have a boy's name ... and once in a while when I feel imperious, I say Victoria, like the Queen (and not so nicely either). But they're all substitutes. Nothing has power like your real name and it took me 25 years to claim it.

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  2. For one entire summer my little sister (then 10) made us call her "Addie" instead of her birth name - Julie. And my own daughter often tells me she wishes we had named her "Crystal." But you don't look like a Crystal, I tell her. Which gets me thinking, what should a Crystal or a Mary or an Addie look like? What kind of characters would they be in a story? Thanks for prompting my imagination. And I just have to add that I love your name, Mirka.

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  3. I still kind of have an identity crisis about my last name. When I decided to be a writer and had dreams of a book being published it was always under "Carroll" my maiden name. Then I got married and legally changed my name, and then got a book deal. For publishing, I stuck with the name I had always pictured on the books. I often have to stop and think about what name I'm supposed to be using when I introduce myself or sign something.

    BTW...I once played on a basketball team where there were three Katies, so there were times when more than half of our players on the court had the same name!

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    1. When DS was a freshmen in high school a few girls took a fancy to him and made him cupcakes. There were three, all names Katie. We referred to them forevermore as "The Katies," even when others would show a liking to him.

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  4. In elementary school, I went by K.C., which are my initials. (Kelly Christine) We had two many Kelly's in my grade and I hated when I didn't know who the teacher was calling on. I dropped it in middle school though since teaming split the Kelly's up.

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  5. Just realized I put an apostrophe in Kellys, and I cringed! lol I'm too quick with the publish button. I need to proofread first. ;)

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  6. Ah, my given name is Lindsey, but my childhood family nickname is Lily, and most of my family, including my husband, just call me Lil. The first time my inlaws heard it, they said rather bluntly, "that's not short for Lindsey." However, they named their son Bernard, and have always called him Ben. So go figure.

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  7. I think Mirka is a great name. My real name is Janet, but as a child, my family always called me Jan, and I felt like that suited me, so when I got married and moved to Wolfville, I just started going by Jan. And I still feel like it suits me.

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    1. Jan is great and, for that matter, so is WOLFVILLE. Wow.

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  8. It makes me sad when people are so closed-minded to names they're not familiar with. I once had someone look at my last name, groan, and say, "They should have changed that at Ellis Island." I used to think I'd change my name when I got married because I was tired of people commenting on it, but then I decided that I liked challenging people to get it right, so I stuck with my maiden one. I don't think I can think of you as a Mary. :)

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  9. My name gives people fits too. Especially overseas where the J doesn't sound like our J. I often had people from work from our overseas offices think I was a man too. Mirka is a lovely American name in my book. :)

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  10. A few eons ago, restaurants used to ask for LAST names. And yup, we took to spelling it phonetically -- HANEY. I let people write my name down as MARSHA if it's a situation where it doesn't matter. But I have a sister-in-law who has known me for 45 years and can't get it right. You learn who cares enough to get it right and who can't be bothered. I've long, long ago given up trying to correct those folks. One time, though, I was given a MARSHA nametag at an in-law family function, and I didn't put it on. That's not my name. You can bet none of them would have either if it had been them.

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  11. I like your lovely, unique name. :-)

    But I sympathize with no one being able to spell it or say it right. I have that trouble with my last name.

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  12. I usually go with my given Chinese name ~ Yanting. But people, on reflex, would go 'huh' so I'd have to repeat and spell my name out. Sometimes people don't understand when I say 'Claudine' either so I'd go with their 'Claudia' ~ which is perfectly fine with me!

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  13. Interesting post, Mary…I mean Mirka..(which I prefer).

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  14. My best friend in high school was also named Cathy and about two feet shorter than I was but we were both skinny. We were known as "Big Cathy" and "Little Cathy" and we didn't mind a bit. Now as I get on the scale? No way...

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