For a while now, I’ve been begging my dad to write a post for my blog.
The son of Italian immigrants, my father grew up speaking neighborhood English. When I was a young girl, to better himself he went back to college to study English, so he could improve his speech and writing skills. Soon after, he began writing his company’s newsletter. Writing became a way of life: over the years, he published many articles and he wrote wonderful poems for each of us on our birthday. His love of writing, his enthusiasm and commitment, inspired me; I wanted to be like him.
As I got older and embarked on my own writing journey, he supported and encouraged me-and today I am proud to say that he is my biggest fan. I’m pleased and honored to present his amazing story, “Names.” Enjoy!!
by Jerry R. Giuliano
A few days ago, I was in the car twisting the radio dial when I heard a DJ announce, ‘Here’s an oldie for you; it’s a tune from 1964 by Shirley Ellis; it’s called The Name Game. She can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name.’ Maybe it was the word, oldie, or 1964, that made me pause there long enough to hear, ‘Shirley, Shirley, Bo Birley, Bo Nana Fanna, Fo Firley:’ I turned it off and started to think about the names that connected me to the past seven and a half decades. Names came quickly; each bringing more names with them; all inspiring thoughts of times, and places stuck in remote creases of my mind.
There was a time I thought everyone, in the world, was named Zia or Zio: Italian words for Aunt and Uncle. At the time, I was about two feet tall and, I thought, people around me were of three different ages. Some (my friends) were my age, some (my cousins) were 50, and the balance (Zias, Zios, and my parents) were 100.
I was born in 1937, and raised in an area where you were either an Italian immigrant, or the child of parents who were. It was there, and within the first 18 years of my life, that I learned important life lessons, colorful names, and very fond memories, I still easily recall.
After Mom, Pop, and the names of my siblings, I learned about Zias and Zios : Italian words for aunts and uncles. ‘Let’s go see Zia Maria’ or Zia Concetta, or Zio Vincenzo, or Zio Angelo. I had an endless supply of Zias and Zios, and there was always an occasion to visit their home, or have them at ours. If I pointed my mom to someone familiar that I didn’t recognize, and asked who he was, she might say, ‘Oh, that’s Zio so and so.’ At some point, I asked my mother how Zio so and so could be my uncle without being hers, or my dad’s brother. ‘Rispetto’, would be the answer.
That’s what Aretha Franklin wanted, and that’s what she asked for: just a little r e s p e c t.
My mom explained that when someone delivered kindness, you paid them respect. ‘So, what did Zio so and so do that was so kind to merit Zio status’, I asked. The answer might be something like this: ‘Well, back in the old country, your father’s fourth cousin, married a woman whose grandfather’s daughter-in-law, had a great nephew, who was run over by a herd of sheep stampeding across a dirt road in the valley of two mountains. Zio so and so lived on the other side of the mountain 18 kilometers away. There were no means of transportation, except by foot, over the mountain. That man went to the funeral; that’s why he deserves your respect, and that’s why you should call him, Zio.’ That may be a slight, lapsed time, age adjusted, small exaggeration.
My neighborhood was like Cheers. It was a place where everybody knew your name. While the land area was small, it was fairly heavily populated with rows of homes on the central streets, and duplex homes along the periphery. Altogether, the neighborhood contained more than a few hundred families and, likely, thousands of individuals. The majority of elders migrated from Southern Italy, and the regions of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily, during the early 1900s. They came for a new and better life in America. They came to labor hard on the roads and rails, and in the factories of our town. Most of them settled, lived their lives, raised their families, and died in the same neighborhood.
It took years to learn the names of my Zias, Zios, relatives, and friends in my neighborhood universe, there were so many.
Traditionally, Italians named their 1st son after the father’s father and, the 2nd son after the mother’s father. The 1st daughter was named after the father’s mother and the 2nd daughter after the mother’s mother. That sounds reasonable, but since there are a limited number of Italian names, it wasn’t always easy to separate, and attach names to so many faces.
Besides brothers and sisters who lived in other towns, my parents had two siblings that lived in our neighborhood.
Three sets of real aunts and uncles provided me with 13 cousins and, the fourth set outdid all the others combined. All of us lived within three blocks of each other. One of my mother’s sisters had 8 children with a guy who already had 8 kids. That meant I had 29 first cousins in the neighborhood. There was a Rosie, Philomena, Mary, Charlie, Louie, Tony, Johnny, Mary, Josie, Philomena, Ralph, Sammy, Nicky, Sammy, Charlie, Tony, Jimmy, Frankie, Johnny, Russ, Louie, Ralph, Joe, Mike, Albert, Theresa, Rose, Philomena, and Dolly.
From the list, you can see there were doubles in just four families, and my family’s names turned some doubles to triples. Because our five families took up most of the good names, and lots of neighborhood families used the same ones, people got creative. Things were very different then and, one could argue, not always very nice, but it was what it was.
Neither sensitivity nor political correctness was a criterion for assigning nicknames. Sometimes, someone’s features were used to create a nickname to differentiate them from others with the same given name. Sometimes, a nickname came from a younger sibling’s mispronunciation of the right one. Occasionally, some logic was applied but, more often than not, a nickname was just goofy: no pun intended.
All the Philomenas were Minnie. One of them was Minnie T, another one was Minnie Reds, and the other was just Minnie. Then there was Theresa the red head, who would never be confused with the other Theresa, or with Minnie Reds, because her nickname was Orange.
One of the boys across the corner was Bidgie; he had a sister Jeeja, and a brother Joonie. Babe lived next door to them. Tickey and Deafie lived next door to me. There was another Deafie that lived a few blocks away. He crossed the railroad tracks, every day, with his head buried in his newspaper, no matter what the weather; he did that every day for decades. Then, on a bright, mid- morning, summer day, a train rolled over him.
There was Boobie, Boodie, and Blue: Blue had blue eyes, and Chubby, Creeper, and Dynamite, whose temperament helped in nicknaming him. One family had four boys, a girl, and a surname name with two ‘Ds’. The boys were all D or DD face to face but, when referring to them, they were Frankie D, Al D, Rosie D, Bobbie D, and Georgie D.
There was a Foot, Giggy, Googoo, Geezie, Gooch, Hooner, and Hunce.
In the 1940’s, there were words, and expressions, that had different meanings than now. Besides slippery, slick meant something really neat, or ‘cool’. ‘Wow, that’s really ‘slick”, was a common expression. My growing up friendships included two Slicks, and one Slicker.
If an attractive, well dressed, ‘hot’, young lady passed, she may draw a praiseworthy ‘hubba hubba’ from ogling boys standing on the corner. Actually, even an especially well dressed, or well-groomed, male friend, might evoke a complimentary ‘hubba-hubba’. There was a Hubba in the neighborhood.
In the novel, ‘The Godfather’, a little Italian boy went through Customs Processing at Ellis Island, NY. When he went in, his name was Vito Andolini. When he came out, his name was Vito Corleone. Someone, other than his parents, gave him a name that stuck for life. That happens a lot.
My father’s name was Gerardo; everyone called him Jerry. My parents named me Jerry.
On my first day at school, a Nun asked for my name. I said Jerry. She told me I must have been wrong because my surname was Italian, and that Italians named their children after saints, and no saints were named Jerry. She said that it was unlikely I would be a Jerome, Jeremy, or Jeremiah, and that my real name must be Geraldo, Girard, or Gerardo. Therefore, she informed me that, from that moment forward, I was Gerald. We were both right, but not about my name. After 75 years, with the exception of the hours spent in parochial school classrooms, my name has remained Jerry. And, as far as I know, there are still no saints named Jerry. Since we both concluded I would not be the first, we are both right on that account.
If I were named Jerry to avoid being called anything other, it didn’t work. I have been called many things over my lifetime. Some names have been most endearing and some, not so much. Some of my names stem from relationships; like names my children’s friends call me, or names my grandchildren have assigned. While some names have stayed with me for a long time, some have lasted less than a minute. Those fleeting names are usually strung together and shouted in staccato tempo. It’s possible those names resulted from my having made a right hand turn after having signaled left for 3 hours or so.
Of the many Lou’s in the neighborhood, there was one whose greeting was always ‘hia’. If there were two, or more, people present whenever he joined a group, he always doubled his greeting. He became Louie Hia Hia.
Pigiron was strong, Midge was short, Johnny Mattress had sleepy eyes, Muzzy had a moustache when he was eight years old. I don’t remember why Satch was Satch, but Schoolbag was Schoolbag because he was the only one in the neighborhood who ever had one.
Outside my neighborhood there was a Parker. No doubt his parents thought to give him a name that would separate his from the usual list of boy names of the day. I met him when I was 16, but didn’t know he was Parker until years later. Everyone called him Ace.
There are lots more nicknames born in my neighborhood, but I don’t recall them at the moment. I’m pretty sure there was no one nicknamed Bo Nana, Fo Fanna, or Fo Firley when I lived there.
If you love this piece, as I do, please leave a comment–and please consider sharing! Thank you so very much!!