What did you say your name was?

Last week’s chat about forgetting the keys and the glasses? Fuggedaboudit. This week’s unforgettable subject is even more serious. It’s about names.

I used to be good at remembering names — until about the last 40 years or so.

A few weeks ago, I was having a lunch meeting with two friends. At one point, I watched a fellow diner cross the room to the buffet. He looked familiar – but from where?

Did he teach locally? Did he work at the post office? Maybe he was a local who had moved away? While I was pondering who he could be, he spotted me and crossed the room. Oh, no! Racking my brain, I smiled as he approached. He arrived at our table, and said, “Marcy, is that you?” Just then, I remembered his name, an absolute miracle of timing. Back when I was the executive director of Warren’s Library Theatre, this gentleman had been an out-of-state donor. And yes, he was a local who had moved away, many years ago.

“Alan, is that you?” I asked. His name came to me just in time – in the exact same second that I lost the names of my two friends.

“Alan, I’d like you to meet … “I turned toward them… “My good friend … ah …ah …” and Susan stepped forward. She saved me. She introduced herself, and then graciously introduced my other dear friend.

I’ve known Susan for more than 20 years. That day — gone. Both women’s names were gone. I, of course, was mortified. But I did what I do these days out of necessity. I said, “Please forgive me. I had one of those flying miracles – you know, when everything flies out of your brain at once.” It was, however, the worst episode I have encountered – losing both names like that.

I think most of us do this some of the time, just not usually with two names at once. Meetings at weddings, run-ins at Walmart, in-line at the bank — we see people out of context all the time and can never quite come up with their names.

Nowadays, I just throw myself on their mercy, apologize and beg their forgiveness. Nobody can dislike you for being honest, old, or simply forgetful (choose one). Occasionally, I’ll just say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten your name – can you help me?” People are mostly very understanding. White hair helps.

Sometimes, afterward, I wind up sitting in the car going through the alphabet.

Have you ever had an incident of forgetting your spouse’s name? I have. Nowadays, if Dear Richard’s name is not on the end of my tongue, I just introduce him as my last husband. I mean, you have to come up with something.

In my early 20s, I had to take a memory course during stewardess training. American Airlines required us to learn our passengers’ names on every flight. After the aircraft backed off the gate, we proceeded through our assigned sections, writing each person’s name onto our seating charts.

Then we posted the charts in the galley over our workspace. The idea was that each time we approached a row, we were to address each passenger by name. “Mr. Smith, are you finished with your tray? Would you like some more coffee, Mr. Jones?”

And honestly, it worked. Every time we chatted with a customer, using a name, by the time they were deplaning, we could say, “Have a nice day, Mr. Smith.” “Goodbye, Mr. Jones, and welcome home.” We talked to our passengers and knew little things like that.

Passengers loved it. I even had repeat customers quiz me. One day, I was taking names in the coach section and when I asked the man in the window seat what his name was, he replied, “Don’t you remember me?”

Oy. It had been a few weeks since I flew through Memphis. I looked long and hard at him and said, “Mr. Waggoner, are you going to Dallas or continuing on to Los Angeles?”

He laughed and was delighted. I had even surprised myself. Truthfully, he had been a fun, personable rider – not easily forgotten. But he still enjoyed my little “parlor trick.”

After a while, practicing this ritual on every flight, I got sort of good at it. It even crossed over into my everyday life. I was really well informed at big parties. I was able to introduce new acquaintances to new acquaintances. It was an impressive skill –for a while. Within a few years after leaving the job, I was back to my normal, forgetful self. Each decade since, the memory’s barn door has closed a little more. Now, eons later, Elvis has left the building.

Naturally, I have never forgotten that I possessed that skill once. And that’s the reason that the double memory failure at lunch a few weeks ago was so upsetting. Maybe I would have remembered their names if we were sitting in row 12. On our way to San Diego.

I doubt it.

Marcy O’Brien writes from Warren.


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