Name That Name. Whatever It Is.

Life at home on Martha’s Vineyard.

– Illustration by Tara Kenny

I am of the age at which friendly faces have started appearing without names attached to them. This tends to happen in Cronig’s while I am calculating the cost-to-health ratio of organic nuts. Will the people in my family be healthier if I buy the organic nuts? Or should I purchase regular nuts and funnel the money I’ll save into the organic blueberries? Don’t blueberries help your memory? Is it worth remembering that a 4.4-ounce container of organic blueberries currently costs $6.29?” And then I’ll hear, “Hi Kate.” The face is familiar. I know this woman, but what is her name? I’d better spring for the blueberries.

My husband Chris has talked of strategically positioning himself to gain a mid-aisle advantage while in Cronig’s. “If you’re in the middle of an aisle and you see someone you know on the end, you have time to either remember their name or turn around and retreat before they spot you,” Chris explained. “You’re at a significant disadvantage when you’re on the end of an aisle. Someone can come around the corner unannounced and unknown.”

In a 2010 article in the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have had difficulty recognizing faces for as long as I can remember.” Dr. Sacks, a best-selling author and professor of neurology, has a neurological affliction called prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. Dr. Sacks wrote that his prosopagnosia was so severe that he sometimes failed to recognize even himself: “I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror.”

While “So sorry I didn’t remember your name, I’m just like Oliver Sacks,” sounds impressive, it’s probably inaccurate. Most people struggling with name-recall issues can’t attribute it to prosopagnosia, although there are clinical-sounding names we can more confidently toss about, like anomia, or nominal aphasia, or RbAp48-deficient, but who can remember those?

Much is written these days about the growth of the memory industry as baby boomers across the country search for their car keys and magnifying readers. However, knowing that you should be doing more Sudoku doesn’t help when what’s-his-name is chatting you up in aisle four.

If only there were someone handing out name tags when you walked into Cronig’s. In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if people wore name tags all the time? Perhaps not at home, but when they ventured out in public, at least on this Island, where for many of us there are more familiar faces than names that go with them.

Along with name tags, maybe we could each be issued a Do Not Disturb pin upon arriving on the Vineyard. Anyone wearing their Do Not Disturb pin will simply be signaling that they do not wish to be approached at this time. Perhaps you are in a rush and don’t have time to chat. Or you are embroiled in a controversial issue — and who here isn’t at some point? — and prefer not to discuss it while sorting through the salad bar. Maybe you are simply having a bad hair day and would rather go unnoticed. The Do Not Disturb pin could be a stylish (see prototype designs below) way to politely duck out of the fray. Of course, people wearing their Do Not Disturb pins would be excused from having to wear name tags.

There should also be a user-friendly system to help sort through the more complicated Island families. The ones with names like Bettencourt and Debettencourt, Ben David and Bendavid. Not to mention the challenges of trying to keep all those Nortons, Moores, and Vanderhoops straight. I married an Alley. He is an Oak Bluffs Alley, not to be confused — as we frequently are — with the West Tisbury Alleys. And why not? The Alleys are here because of two brothers from the Azores with the last name of Medeiros, not to be confused with the Madeiras family.

What if kiosks were installed around the Island that could illuminate these family trees with a simple search? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that Mr. Debettencourt, your child’s ninth-grade math teacher, is a cousin of Mr. Debettencourt, her eleventh-grade math teacher, and also the son of her kindergarten teacher’s aide, Mrs. Debettencourt, yet not related to Mrs. Debettencourt, her first-grade teacher’s aide. That Mrs. Debettencourt is part of the other Debettencourt family. The one that fixes cars. Or is it the other Debettencourts that have the auto repair shops? I sincerely apologize if I have misspelled any of these Debettencourts. The phone book lists: De Bettencourt, DeBettencourt, Debettencourt, deBettencourt, and de Bettencourt. For those who have successfully sorted out all of this, I encourage you to move on and take the Bettencourt challenge. Not up to the task? All this information could be available at conveniently located kiosks. With one simple search, the truth about which Debettencourt is which could be revealed.

The hitch is that once you know one Debettencourt from another, there’s still no guarantee that when you see one of them in the supermarket, you’re going to remember his name. Or that he’ll remember yours.