News & Politics

Getting Called My Childhood Nickname Brought Me Back to My Grade-School Self

Photo-illustration by Phong Nguyen. Photographs courtesy of Jack Curry.

To the world at large, I’m Jack Curry. In print, online, in the classroom or newsroom, to the lady at my neighborhood Whole Foods—Jack.

“Thanks for bagging, Jack.”

“Jack, I think I deserve an A-minus instead of B-plus,” a student argues.

“Jack, you’re past deadline,” an editor reminds me.

But at a niece’s recent wedding—pretty much a family reunion—I heard mostly the diminutive, endearing nickname of my earliest days. To those who knew me then—nuns, buddies, bullies, kin—I was Jackie.

“Jackie, let’s dance”—an invitation from my sister Katie, mother of the bride.

“Your IRA’s doing okay, Jackie?” asked Timmy, my older brother, a lawyer.

“Jackie, you look just like your father,” said Anne, a girl who knew Jackie when he called his father Daddy. That was a long time ago.

Jack has had bylines in the Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Daily News, and TV Guide. He had a weekly entertainment segment on Fox 5. Lark McCarthy or Tony Perkins would ask, “Jack, what’s going to happen at the Oscars?” Pretty much every year, he’d respond, “There will be a lot of surprises.” (There weren’t.)

Being Jackie again for a weekend was surprising—and refreshing. That guy knew little about sadness, conflict, failure. Those who called me Jackie were conjuring a shared past before I challenged them by moving away, moving to DC, moving in with Christopher.

Maybe the name’s Proustian punch at the wedding is like the home-again frisson Barack Obama experiences when he returns to Chicago, where a store clerk in West Pullman might call him Barry. Or the way an old school friend from Michigan might call Mitt Romney Will—for Willard, his actual first name.

In Washington—a city of grownups and overgrown ambitions—the kiddie nicknames that once flourished in schoolyards and on Christmas vacations whither in the cloakroom. Paul Ryan’s childhood moniker, Petey, doesn’t resonate in the congressional gym after his workouts. Few nabobs were ever privileged to retort with “Dutch” as Ronald Reagan volleyed jellybeans in the Oval Office.

More frequent now under the Capitol rotunda: nicknames that have been concocted not out of summer camp’s camaraderie but from the cauldron of political rancor. Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Pocahontas.

Genuine childhood nicknames are nurtured from deep and idiosyncratic personal history. They connect the named and the name user to a simpler, sometimes mythical past. Jeb Bush’s first name is an acronym for his real full name, John Ellis Bush. Political foes, friends, and family—the entire world, in fact—knew Robert and Edward Kennedy by their pre-Camelot handles: Bobby and Teddy.

Hearing such names can throw us out of our adult personas into deeper-rooted terrain. Years ago, when I got a call in the middle of a newsroom workday, I knew something wasn’t right.

“It’s for you . . . Jackie,” said a smirking coworker, mocking the name the caller had used.

My sister Virginia was on the line. “Jackie,” she sobbed. “Mommy just died.”

At the wedding, that same sister, four other siblings, and various in-laws, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and old, old friends all called me Jackie. Jackie was asked to do a reading at the nuptial Mass. He walked the mother of the bride down the aisle.

Jack both grimaced and glowed. As the celebration went on—and with it more drinks—he all but disappeared while Jackie stepped out of the past for one night of handshakes, back pats, memories, and love.