A Final Thought: Great-Aunts with Great Names


By Mitch Allen

When I was a child in Alabama/Georgia in the 1960s, I had great-aunts with names like Gladys, Eula, and Lois. What I remember most about them was their horn-rimmed glasses; their hard-sided purses that smelled of Doublemint chewing gum; how they always had corn pads on their toes; how incredibly fast they could shell butter beans and black-eyed peas into large bowls balanced in their aproned laps; and how so many of them had lost a sibling at a young age, including James Edward, who fell off the front porch as a toddler and hit his head on an ax because Alabama farmhouses didn’t have railings on their front porches in 1925, and Mary Fannie, who was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 7 years old. I always heard her referred to as the one who “died from a mad dog bite.”

“Were you sad when Mary died from a mad dog bite?” I asked one great-aunt. “Yes, I was,” came her simple reply.

To me, these great-aunts were always old, as if they were born that way, though when I look at my family tree today, I realize they were the same age I am now.

When I came along in the ’60s, most front porches had railings and we had a vaccine for rabies, but neighborhood dogs still slept in doghouses, ran around with us kids without a leash, and would chase cars, biting at the tires. These days if you see a dog not on a leash, someone is going to call the Humane Society—or the cops.

I don’t want this column to be about how bravely we lived as kids, drinking from water hoses, climbing high into treetops, jumping ramshackle ramps on our bikes like Evel Knievel, running through our neighbors’ back yards without worry. Heck, I walked nine-tenths of a mile to first grade in Phenix City, Alabama. No, not uphill both ways; it was downhill going and a steep hill coming back. I had one great-aunt, a Cajun living in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, who came to visit us once. She had never left the utterly flat state of Louisiana so when she rode with us up said steep hill, she shouted, “I gonna get a nosebleed, me!”

We really didn’t have any mountains in South Alabama. It was just a hill.

Instead, I want this column to be about names. Gladys, Eula, and Lois are no longer common (except Superman’s girlfriend is still Lois Lane, and Gladys Knight is still performing). In my high school in the ’70s, many of the girls were named Mary, Linda, Barbara, Susan, Lisa, and Karen. (It’s terrible what our culture has done to the name “Karen.” All the Karens I know are delightful women, but I guess if John and Dick can survive the consternation, maybe Karen will be okay, too).

Girls’ names changed in the ’70s and ’80s when we saw Jennifer, Amy, Melissa, Michelle, Amanda, Jessica, Ashley, and the return of Emily and Sarah from the 1800s. Since the new millennium, the great-aunts in the year 2070 will have softer names ending in vowels, perhaps reflecting America’s growing Hispanic culture. They will have names like Sophia, Olivia, Emma, Eva, and Amelia. The popular throwback to the 1800s for this group was Charlotte, which was the number one baby girl name in Ohio in 2022, based on Social Security card application data.

Excluding the names of my great-aunts, each of the names above was one of the top four most popular baby girl names in a given year, according to the U.S. Census. Missing from the list are popular girls’ names among ethnic minorities, including African Americans. Fewer than 15% of American births each year are to Black mothers, so it’s difficult for those names to break into the top four. According to various sources, the most popular African American baby girls’ names in 2022 included Ava, Nova, Skylar, and Genesis.

Of course, our great-aunts’ first names today and tomorrow are only half of what we call them. The other half is determined by how we pronounce the word “aunt” itself. Where I come from, we pronounced it ain’t. Here in Ohio, you may say ant or ont. Regardless, if you’re a great-aunt to someone, consider it a great honor. I am who I am today thanks to women like Aunt Gladys, Aunt Eula, and Aunt Lois, whether it was due to teaching me to bait a hook or allowing me to carve animals out of a bar of soap with a butter knife.

No matter their name, or how you pronounce it, having a great-aunt (or being one) is a great thing.


Categories: Smart Living