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When all of my little friends and close cousins had cool and common names like Susan, Marilyn, Barbara and Sandy, growing up in the 1950s and 60s with the name Pearl was not easy. I knew only two kids with names I disliked even more - Adele, who looked and acted 50 years older than she was, and Fern, my cousin who absolutely hated that name, dropped it when was she was 9, and insisted on being called by her middle name, Stephanie.
My peers were always excited to start the new school year because they could go to the local five-and-dime and pick out personalized pens, pencils, rulers and lots of other fun stuff with their name on it. Although I searched all over New York City, there was no Pearl merchandise to be found.
OK, I’m exaggerating. I once found a stationery set - note paper and envelopes - with a drawing of a vase of violets and an ornate teacup. Very 1940s. Very not me. Very indicative that the only demand for Pearl products was by old ladies.
Being Jewish, the parameters for what my name would be were established before I was born - I needed a name that started with a B or a P. My parents decided that if I were a girl, I would be named in memory of my paternal grandmother, Bessie (Pesha in Yiddish, derived from the Hebrew name Batsheva). So, my Yiddish/Hebrew name was set as Pesha. But, according to my parents, selecting an English name was a bit of a controversy that resulted in my birth certificate being filed without a given name.
Among the rejected possibilities were Patricia, which one aunt said was too Irish; Bessie, which reminded everyone of a cow; Barbara, which had already been given to another of Bessie's granddaughters and Betsy. Somehow, a few days after I was born, my parents decided that Pearl was a perfect fit.
Growing up Pearl had its ups and downs. With many older relatives who came from Central Europe living close by, I heard “Poil” more than Pearl during those early years. I guess it was easier for them to pronounce.
Having a husky voice and a Brooklyn accent, I was (and still am) often mistaken for a Paul when I’ve had to give my name to someone I don’t know over the phone. That has always been a pain.
Since there were some famous Pearls in my time, it wasn’t all that bad. I was happy to read some books by Pearl Buck; was entertained by TV appearances by Pearl Bailey and felt extra cool when it was revealed that Janis Joplin had adopted the name Pearl. Of course, there were some serious setbacks. The sudden popularity of a doll dressed in rags and named Poor, Pitiful Pearl was depressing. Later, Joplin’s tragic demise was a tough blow to handle.
After 40 years of living with my name, one that had always seemed too old for me, I finally started to feel comfortable with it. A few gray hairs and wrinkles can do that to a person. And with a growing trend toward giving girls more names based in nature like Heather, Willow and Holly, Pearl might soon zoom back up the popularity charts. Keeping today’s high-tech gadgetry in mind, a kid no longer has to rely on local stores for customized school supplies and such.
But I cannot forget the times I felt embarrassed and cringed when my old aunts and uncles would call me Poil in front of my friends. Now, I would pay almost anything just to hear those loving voices from the past call me Poil again.