Only three years separate my older sister and me, with twin brothers wedged between. Growing up on a 40-acre farm an hour north of New York City, we ran as a pack through apple orchards and mown fields, pushed each other out of haylofts and off sandbanks, then shared high school and college friends before serving as attendants in all our first weddings.
These days we live in Maine, New York, New Mexico and Colorado, but distance doesn’t matter. Daily emails and texts, plus frequent phone calls (“Hey, Bughead!” “Yo, Baby!”) sustain strong sibling sinews. We four have nearly-identical sloped noses and broad foreheads. We all take Synthroid for less-than-perfect thyroids. But our most common denominator is that we rarely call each other by our given names.
We were — and are — the Burkhardt kids: Robin, Robert, Ross and Valerie. But those names were seldom used except by teachers, scout leaders and new friends. Or our parents when we handed over a report card with a C-minus in math or left the bathroom light on. Otherwise, we answered to Pussyfoot, Chickie, Shorty and Baby… among countless others.
Our oldest sister’s given name is Constance. Before she even came home from the Cornwall, New York hospital where she was born on an April morning in 1939, Mom dubbed her “Robin” to honor her mother whose nickname was “Birdie.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve called my sister Honey. My dad and brothers refer to her as Pussyfoot. I have no idea why. The only one I understand is “Cleveland.”
Robin (aka Honey, Pussyfoot or Constance on the birth certificate) was filling out her Vassar College application in ink. She had just written “C,” the first letter of her given name, when, out of nowhere, one of the brothers asked our dad, “What’s the biggest city in Ohio?” “Cleveland,” he guessed. With that, Cleveland Burkhardt signed her college application. The name stuck.
The brothers merited numerous handles. Robert James Burkhardt Jr., our dad’s namesake, answers to Bughead (a variation of “Burkhardt”), Chickie (Robin knows but won’t tell me why), and Robby-Cuddle (apparently, he was quite the young Romeo).
Ross, the younger twin, goes by Shorty because at birth he was one-eighth of an inch shorter than his older brother. (I’ve often wondered why that nickname didn’t trigger years of couch therapy). Mom also called him Gutch, a hideous name that derived from a sound he made when he was still in the crib.
As the youngest, I was dubbed Baby. That stuck all through my teens.
What were our parents thinking when they disregarded the beautiful names they had chosen to label us with these silly monikers? None of us knows and, sadly, we can’t ask them. We figure they were created with affection and we suspect the nicknames reflected a certain assessment of us.
Our nicknames have endured, as have the loving bonds instilled by our parents. But we are now in our late 70s and we know that sooner or later “something’s gonna happen.”
With typical Burkhardt gallows humor, we banter about being remembered in our various wills. We’ve agreed that “The Parting Class” should be played at each of our funerals. And we wonder if our own children will remember the nicknames our parents gave us. Or the names we four call each other today: The Elder, Bobert, Rossifer and Vellery.