The Good Letters

My mother took what she could absorb from her parents’ careful upbringing and supplemented what was for her an indecipherable and arbitrary system for interacting with other people by developing her own guidelines. One of her favorite self-made standards is the good letters, which operate under rigid principles:

  • The good letters, which apply only to people’s names, provide a key to decoding other people’s characters
  • The good letters are L M E A R
  • L and M are the best of the good letters
  • The best names contain each of the good letters
  • Having lots of any one of the good letters – even L and M – is not as good as having one of each of them
  • Anyone whose name contains none of the good letters is to be pitied 
  • A name my mother doesn’t like (and she is quite judgmental about her standards of name quality) is somewhat offset when the name contains plenty of good letters (“Michaela! Ugh! What an icky name but full of good letters!”)
  • The good letters are supplemented by the presence of one of the good numbers in one’s birthday (having a 7 or 8 in the day is the ideal; year of birth and month do not count)

To get the best information on a person, you look at the letters in all their names (please try to find out the middle name to avoid shortchanging the person you are assessing) and, if you can get it, their birthday. Mary Ellen Lambert, born on the 17th of any month, or Allen Marshall, whose birthday is the 28th of whatever would surely be wonderful people who would never dream of criticizing my mother or expecting anything from her and would be delighted to satisfy even her most outlandish requests. Lambert, by the way, is in the rare luxury class of perfect names: all the good letters present in one sublime surname  – the given names, if they have good letters, are just a rich and flavorful gravy enhancing an already impeccable dish.

When she hears a name for the first time, my mother’s immediate reaction is to assess the name’s wealth or poverty of good letters. “John Cook! Oh! What a terrible name!  Not a single good letter!” Poor bastard. We can only hope he is hiding an opulent middle name.

After I became an adult, I found that one certain way to connect with my mother is to amuse her with names I come across that have either all or none of the good letters or that I know she won’t approve of or. She never gets tired of happily admiring a name full of good letters or expressing disgust over names she considers to be out of bounds – tacky or faux-glamorous or made-up. She does not admire creativity in naming.

After decades of regarding the good letter theory as just an oddity, I finally came to understand the purpose of the good-letter theory. My mother didn’t devise this scheme to privilege herself. She was born without an M or L, and her birthday is the 22nd. The point of the good letters was to formulate a pattern for judging other people, who would otherwise be so impenetrable on introduction. The good letters are like reading glasses – you can’t decipher the content until you put them on, and then magically everything is clear and settled.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.


One thought on “The Good Letters

  1. James Woodruff

    My favorite post yet, Sarah. There are too many compelling lines to choose just one, but here’€™s the first that I had to stop a moment to admire before continuing on: “Lambert, by the way, is in the rare luxury class of perfect names: all good letters present in a sublime surname.”€ Your word choices ring up max points for absurdist irony while the rest of the sentence effortlessly propels me toward another can’t-wait-to read-what-comes-next revelation.




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