As anyone who's grown up in the rural South knows, every community has that small percentage of country folk who, for whatever reason, prefer not to be called by their given names. Instead, they go by odd monikers that are ostensibly descriptive of the individual while strangely not descriptive at all. For example, I know a man named Leapy whom I've never seen jump or run or skip. My dad's good friend is named Doodle, but I don't think he knows how to draw or sketch. There's Shorty, who is tall; Tiny, who tops out at somewhere in excess of 250 lbs; and Chiefy, a childhood friend of mine, who was no more in charge of anything than I was at 8 years old. Of course, as a child, I didn't put a lot of thought into these names, other than to wonder what they meant from time to time or to laugh at them casually under my breath. They were just simple nicknames.
However, as an adult, I have come to learn the power of nicknames. You see, nicknames are usually given as tokens of affection or goodwill. They are typically "awarded" to their recipients after a salient life event, a humorous occasion, or a clumsy mishap. Thus, every time one's friends or family call him/her by this nickname, fond memories are recalled and warm affections are shared. And best of all, there is a mystery surrounding each nickname that is known only by a small group of people--those who bestowed the name and the one who received it. This sort of "secret," shared knowledge creates a closeness among these people. Only a handful of privileged folks in my hometown know why a man who cannot draw even the simplest of stick figures is referred to as Doodle. But that's the beauty of it, right?
My maternal "grandpa," though not the recipient of a nickname himself, liked to hand them out to his grandchildren. In fact, he landed one on me at a very young age. To him, I was Scrub. I've never known why he called me Scrub. My parents don't know either. Maybe he thought I needed a bath, or maybe it was his way of describing the many noogies he gave me. He passed away when I was 16 years old, so we will never know. But whatever the reason, I was Scrub. And, you know, I don't need to know the reason he called me by this nickname because every time he said it, I felt close to him. Every time he said, "Scrub, get me that wrench" or "Come here, Scrub" or "Do you want to go the hardware store with me, Scrub?" I felt a kindredness with him that I have never experienced before or since. The name Scrub was a secret word between my grandpa and me, and it was more than a proper noun. "Scrub" said, "I love you"; it communicated a genuineness of spirit toward me--an honesty and authenticity of being. "Scrub" comforted me in the knowledge of familiarity and familial commitment. It made me feel safe and protected. And, yes, "Scrub" made me chuckle every once in a while, and few things make one person feel closer to another than humor.
Admittedly, every now and then today, I do long to know what my grandpa meant by "Scrub." This, unfortunately, I will never know. But I will always know what it meant to me. It meant everything.