Confession time: I am terrible at names. And especially at putting names together with faces. I’m not sure why this is. I can remember the chart number of a worker’s compensation patient from the orthopedic surgeon’s office where I worked three years ago. The phone number at my apartment in Texas where I lived for only ten months during my first job out of college (let’s not talk about how many years ago that was). But let one of my mother’s cousins say hello at the local cafe and I’m toast.
It would be less embarrassing if I didn’t even try to remember names. But I work at it. At large social gatherings I plant myself next to one of Those Who Know Everyone and quiz them about any familiar face that wanders past. Play little word games with myself. You know, like I should remember Joe Tallman because he isn’t tall, he’s short.
It’s not as simple as a memory problem. It’s more like stage fright. Sitting here right now, I can think of a person’s name and picture their face clear as day. Plop me down in front of the concession stand at the Tal Michael Memorial Rodeo, though, and I’m like the National Anthem singer who forgets the words they’ve sung a thousand times. Froze up. Totally blank.
Uh-oh. That woman is looking at me like she knows me. Oh, crud, she’s saying hello. Come on, come on brain…give me something.
At which point I blurt out the first name that pops into my head, which is always a sister or a cousin or a next door neighbor but NEVER the person standing in front of me. Or I go with a big dumb smile and, “Well, it’s good to see YOU, too.” And the woman gives me the look that says, “Wow, what a moron” and walks away. And then I remember exactly who she is and that time at the Birch Creek arena when we persuaded her little brother to go snipe hunting and what color her barrel horse was back in 1983.
Family reunions and other social gatherings that attract large numbers of relatives and acquaintances are a nightmare. The more I screw up, the more I panic, until I start second-guessing myself on even the no-brainers.
Wait. Are you sure? Don’t say the name until you’re sure. Okay, yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the guy in my wedding photos.
Don’t even bother looking for me at the big Lewis and Clark Days Festival and all school reunion. I can’t take the pressure. It does not help that I moved away for a couple of decades and let’s face it, we all don’t look quite like we did back in high school. I’m pretty sure I’m taller now, which would account for why some people don’t seem to recognize me right off. Or they’re suffering from the same nameaphobia that sends me ducking down an alternate aisle in the grocery store when I have one of my attacks.
Please don’t take it personally. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid you. I’m just giving myself a few moments to recall whether we shared the same Algebra teacher or the same grandparents. Feel free to walk over, whack me upside the head and say, “Hey, dummy, I’m Mike, remember?”
Until then, I will stick with Mr. Tatsey, just to be safe. Or “Hey, you.”