My sister’s name is Buster.
There’s no need to adjust your glasses or blink your eyes. You read correctly. My sister’s name is Buster. Actually, her name is Anne Marie, but when she was five years old, she announced at dinner one night that she preferred to be called Buster because it was a good boy’s name.
“But you’re a girl!” my mother pointed out.
“That isn’t my fault,” retorted Anne Marie, now Buster.
“I rather like girls,” my father said.
“Sure, you can say that because you’re not a girl!” she pouted. “I want to be tough!”
“We are not calling you Buster and that’s that. Anne Marie is a perfectly lovely name. It was my great-grandmother’s name.” Mother thought the issue was closed.
My father gave in first. Frankly, he’s a sucker where daughters are concerned, and if Anne Marie wanted to be called Buster, he would call her Buster.
She wore me down next. She wouldn’t talk to me at all unless forced to: “Go ask Susan if she’s finished with the scissors,” mother would say to her. She would stare at me in the left ear and ask coldly if I had the scissors. I got tired of the snub. The day I began calling her Buster she beamed at me and said, “Thanks, kid.” I just about fell on my face laughing.
Mother was more determined. She thought the name Buster was a travesty. If Buster didn’t answer when mother called “Anne Marie,” mother would make her sit in her room for half an hour and then demand an apology. Buster apologized this way: “I’m sorry I disobeyed.”
“Next time will you come when I call?” mother would ask.
“Will you call me Buster?” Buster was brazen. I have seen my mother shake her fists at the air and in a strangled voice say, “What have I done to deserve this?”
After a long while, mother also succumbed and called her Buster. At first she hissed it to show her disapproval, but later she said it quite naturally as if she herself had chosen the name.
So it was that my mother, who grew up with ballet lessons and felt most at home with chintz draperies and delicate Queen Anne furnishings, had to raise Buster, who sat mostly in trees or on garage rooftops. Mother collected recipes. Buster collected bottlecaps and baseball cards. Mother wanted to own a hundred antique dolls. Buster said it would be nice to have eleventy Tonka trucks like Billy Weinberg.
One of the more unnerving events of the following few years was when Buster, unilaterally, cut off her two pigtails that had grown to her waist. I thought we’d have to give mother mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But mother learned patience and long-suffering and, like Job, waited for the right moment, hoping yet to instill in her daughter Buster some kind of feminine identity, however modest.
The “moment” came when Buster was 13. The bishop asked her to give a five-minute talk in sacrament meeting on one of her ancestors. Buster was disgusted.
“What a can of worms!” she exclaimed after telling my parents about the assignment. They were eating ice cream in the kitchen.
“Who are you going to talk about?” asked my father.
Buster shrugged and rolled her eyes back in her head as only she could do.
“Why don’t you talk about my Great-Grandfather Wheatley? He was a real pioneer and went on three missions for the Church. I don’t like looking at the whites of your eyes, Buster,” he said somewhat irritably.
“Sorry,” she returned laconically and clanked her spoon into her dish. “Everyone in the ward already knows about old Ezra Wheatly. You’ve talked about him before, and besides he’s a …”
Bore is, I believe, what she had in mind there but she evidently thought better of it and after a pause said, “He’s a pioneer. Everybody talks about his old pioneer ancestors. Don’t we have any ancestors who weren’t pioneering it all the time?”
I thought my father was going to roll his eyes back in his head, but he restrained himself.
Tactfully, my mother handed my father a plate of cookies and turning to Buster said, “Why don’t you tell them about your Great-Great-Grandmother Anne Marie McIlhenny. She wasn’t a pioneer.”
“She was a wrestler!” My father lost all cool.
“Was she? Was she really?” Buster was ecstatic.
“Not exactly,” corrected my mother, giving my father a try-not-to-help-me-look. “But she did set up an athletic program for the girls in her town. They competed in track events, arm wrestling,” she eyed my father, “and soccer.”
“Did she live around here?” Buster remained interested.
“No, in Nova Scotia, outside a city called Yarmouth.”
“Was she a professional athlete?”
“No, she taught school.”
Buster’s face fell.
“But she loved sports!” my mother continued anxiously. “She thought girls should be allowed to enjoy and participate in sports as much as boys. Wait a minute and I’ll get the book of remembrance. There’s a picture of her in there and a story of her life written by her daughter.” Mother left the room and returned shortly with a large black volume opened up to the picture of Anne Marie McIlhenny. She was a pretty woman wearing a lace dress.
“She doesn’t look like any athlete there!” complained Buster.
“Oh she was feminine, but she was strong.” My mother made a ridiculous looking fist. “Read her story,” she urged. “She did all kinds of amazing things, yet she remained feminine too!” Mother had to have her nickel’s worth of preaching. Her face reddened with excitement. Here, at last, was the opportunity to teach Buster that one could be feminine and enjoy tree climbing too. Maybe she would even drop the name Buster!
My father winked at me.
“You were named after her, you know,” my mother was saying to Buster. “Of course, we didn’t know you would be so much like her then—when you were a baby, I mean. See, you even look like her. If you had a lace collar like that, you’d look exactly like her!” There was a remarkable resemblance.
Buster was skeptical but took the book of remembrance to her bedroom.
On Saturday morning mother, armed with pen and pencil, went into Buster’s bedroom to help her with her talk. To her surprise, Buster didn’t want help.
“Are you sure?” mother asked.
“Positive,” Buster replied. “I know what I want to say. I can write it myself. Did you know,” she raised her eyebrows, “that Anne Marie McIlhenny finished building a barn with her own two hands after her husband broke both his legs?”
“Yes, I know.”
“She was sensational,” Buster muttered, forgetting mother was there. “Simply sensational.”
“She doesn’t want any help,” mother told father and me in the kitchen, “and she thinks Anne Marie McIlhenny was sensational!” She clapped her hands. “Maybe she’ll want us to call her Anne Marie again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
My father laughed and shook his head. “Don’t count on it,” he grinned.
Mother went downtown to celebrate Buster’s “growth into womanhood” as she dramatically put it. Her celebration took the form of buying Buster a new dress to wear for her talk. Buster hated dresses, especially new ones.
“Did you know,” Buster began as mother unwrapped the box, “that Anne Marie McIlhenny had her own horse and rode bareback whenever she could? And she loved the wind.”
“I’d forgotten that,” said my mother. “How do you like this dress?” She held it up. It was, every inch, white eyelet. I kid you not.
I thought of Anne Marie McIlhenny in her lace dress.
Buster stared at the dress for what seemed an hour and a half.
“It’s okay,” she said finally.
Mother knew good luck when it clobbered her on the head like that and quickly hung the dress in the closed before Buster changed her mind. She hummed steadily through dinner. She was victorious. Here was Buster giving a talk all by herself and about her own great-great-grandmother and not her usual favorite—Goliath. And she was going to wear white eyelet doing it. Mother was sure that any moment now Buster would demand that we call her Anne Marie!
That evening Buster did not want to rehearse her talk for us. She said she could do it herself. She sat on the garage roof and practiced. I could see her lips moving from the kitchen window.
“Do you think it’s safe to let Buster give a talk without our hearing it first?” my father asked.
“I think she can handle it.” murmured my mother. “After all, she’s Anne Marie McIlhenny’s great-great-granddaughter.”
On Sunday I sat with my parents in sacrament meeting. Buster sat on the stand dressed in white eyelet, as feminine as orange blossoms, and looking for all the world like our great-great-grandmother. I noticed my mother’s foot swing back and forth in nervous rhythm. My father’s face was deadpan, but he swallowed frequently. Finally, the bishop introduced Buster as one of the prettiest Scouts in the ward. My mother winced slightly.
Buster stood behind the pulpit without any notes and in a clear voice began to speak. “I would like to tell you about my great-great-grandmother, Buster McIlhenny!” Then she looked down at my mother’s stricken face and said to her alone, “A lady as strong and fine as Great-Great-Grandmother McIlhenny deserves a good name like Buster, and since she shared her name with me, I want to share my name with her. And one day,” she added softly, “maybe I’ll even be as neat a lady as she was.”