The name game

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Feature

What’s in a name?

With apologies to Shakespeare and the whole sweet-smelling rose thing, I am declaring there’s a whole lot in a name.

I am Sherri. With an “i.” I am Gardner Howell. No hyphen, although I will hyphenate it before I will allow it to be shortened to “G” or, heaven forbid, just “Howell.”

I love my name, although I consistently have to spell it so I don’t become a gardener or a howe. After years of writing under this moniker and a lifetime of family, friends and enemies who like, love or hate Sherri, I feel completely like a Sherri Gardner Howell.

And I’m living a lie! My name is Cheryl. With a “C.” Cheryl Diane (née Gardner) Howell, to be precise, which is not even close to Sherri.

This truth raises its ugly head every time I travel. I can and do insist that all documents that I have control over – credit cards, membership cards, etc. – list me as Sherri Gardner Howell. Problem is that the U.S. government and Homeland Security don’t care if I want to call myself Puddin’ Pie. I am Cheryl, and everything I present to them better announce that fact loud and clear, or I can stay home. Passport, driver’s license, boarding documents, airline tickets all have to match for Cheryl to be free to move about the world. “Sherri” isn’t going anywhere.

I even did the unthinkable and got a credit card for Cheryl Gardner Howell. I hate it and only use it when I travel for things like paying baggage fees and airline or cruise charges. Even then, I’m likely to sign the receipt “Sherri,” which matters less-and-less these days, especially if you are signing with your finger on a tablet.

The whole “Cheryl/Sherri” thing is actually a very sweet story. “Cheryl,” my mother told me, was a very popular name in the 1950s, when I was born. She loved it. “It is such an elegant name,” she would tell me. “I just loved it from the start, and your father agreed.”

Plus, my mother – Mary Frances, who was called Mary Frances, Fran and Frances – didn’t like nicknames. “You can’t shorten Cheryl to anything,” she told me. “You would always and forever be ‘Cheryl.’”

And my father agreed, she insisted. “He called you Cheryl – or Doodle Bug – all the time. Then, one day, when you were just past 2 years old, he came home, and you ran into his arms, and he scooped you up and twirled you around, declaring, “How’s my sweet, sparkling Sherry?”

From that moment on, I was Sherri. “I fought a good fight for a while,” my mother would say. “Mack, stop calling her that. Mack, that’s not her name. But he insisted that you were a ‘sweet, sparkling Sherry,’ just like the cocktail he loved after dinner. Then, when he died…”

I was never Cheryl again. My mother changed the “y” to “i” because she was a good Southern Baptist. “I couldn’t have people know you were named after liquor,” she would say, conspiratorially.

Then, because she was both a mother and a storyteller extraordinaire, she would wind it all up with an ending sure to instill confidence and pride in her daughter: “He was right. The name fits you. It was as if your father looked into your soul and knew exactly who you were: Sherri. Never let anything sordid touch your name. Always make him proud.”

Homeland Security notwithstanding, elegant Cheryl just doesn’t fit the picture.

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