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What's in a Name by Bill Harrison


My mother would insist her name was Barbara; not Barbra. Not Barbie nor Barb nor, worst of all, Babs. It began lightheartedly—a joke almost—but later hardened into a grasping need to preserve something of herself. The only people who refused to respect this boundary were her parents, who only ever called her “Bahbs” or “Bobbie.”

I conjure my mother as she was in her late 30s—perched on our hideous burnt orange sofa, legs crossed, russet hair permed into a fashionable 1970's 'do. A Marlboro smolders in her right hand; pungent black coffee cools on the end table beside her. Those odors are forever welded as one in my nose's mind.

Photos of Barbara as a young woman attest that she was, in the parlance of the '40s, a looker. Though she would later become an ardent second wave feminist, in her teens and 20s my mother loved being stylish and slim—especially the latter.

Sadly, Mom had been bequeathed a genetic tendency towards overweight, which was likely held in check by the smoking habit she ignited in her teens. Her body battles began in earnest after two caesarian births and the first of two radical mastectomies, all occurring before she turned 25. At five-foot-nothing, it didn't take many extra pounds to upset her precarious height/weight balance.

There would be more losses: other serious surgeries, fibromyalgia, the suicide of her beloved older brother, my sister's struggles with mental health, her divorce from my philandering father. When she was in hospice, struggling for breath due to the smoking-induced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I overheard Mom meeting a new nurse.

“It's Barbara. Two-bar-a.”

So much had been taken away from her. But she still had her name.


Bill Harrison spent many years in the music business and is now enjoying a second career as a psychotherapist in Chicago. He's written extensively on music- and psychology-related topics for such publications as Bass World, The Intermezzo, Bass Musician Magazine, Counseling Today, and Performink. Like everyone else, he's at work on a memoir. Twitter: @

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