I know you’ve heard of Johnny Cash’s hit song, “A Boy Named Sue. ” a tale of a kid and his no-account father.
As the lyrics explain, the dad left home when the boy was only three, and “The meanest thing he ever did was before he left, he went and named me ‘Sue.’”
I can’t top that tale but my dad could, sort of, because when he was born in a small Kentucky town in 1912, his parents named him “Shirley.” Really.
In “A Boy Named Sue,” the words explain, “Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke and it got a lot of laughs from lots of folk. It seems I had to fight my whole life through. Some gal would giggle and I’d get red and some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head, I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
Could it be my Dad, an easy-going, soft-spoken guy, had such trouble as a child because he was a “Shirley?”
I asked him about that decades ago, wondering why family friends and loved ones called him “Shirley” yet it never seemed to bother him.
He explained that Shirley was his middle name, as in, “William Shirley Farmer,” but his father’s first name was William too, so his mother Molly and siblings called dad Shirley to avoid confusion.
Years ago I taped an oral history with my dad and asked him about the Shirley thing. He explained:
“In my mother’s ancestry in England and Scotland, Shirley was a boy’s name, much like Laurie, Evelyn, Carroll and others. And I loved using that name. It always was a conversation ice breaker,” he said with a grin.
“I belonged to a church group for young people that had a summer camp every year in Cadiz, Ky.
“The boys had one side of the camp, the girls the other. We’d stay for a week. I remember that the first time I went there, I was assigned to the girls’ side because of my name.
“But they wouldn’t let me stay, even though I said, ‘That’s all right, I’ll stay, I’ll make out ok.’ They firmly said no.”
My dad wasn’t the only “Farmer” kid with an unusual name. Among his brothers’ names were Porter, Delmar and Estell. He also had a sister named Lorene and another named Virgie. Not Virginia, just Virgie. And he had a cousin named Texel, a guy.
The family-with-funny-names syndrome didn’t stop with my father. My mother’s first name was Doris, which caused a bit of confusion with my dad’s side of the family because of their preference for quaint British first names. The reason —- “Dorris” with two “r”s was/is a man’s name in the UK.
Then there was my uncle Bill, my mother’s brother whose name was Byrd William. He much preferred “Bill” to “Byrd,” and also cringed at calling my dad Shirley. So he always shortened it, as in, “Hi Shirt” or “How ya doin’ Shurl?”
One thing was for sure in that family. Nobody could ever find their names on a mug or a key chain sold on those convenience store revolving racks that have plenty of trinkets for people named Jennifer, George, Jason, Justin et al.
Come to think of it, there might well have been a Shirley on a mug somewhere, but the writing probably would have been in pink.
Happy Father's Day to dads everywhere.