We parents place such importance on naming our children. There are books we consult on the meanings of names. There are dear friends and relatives that we honor by naming our children after them. And then there are the nicknames that are given to us as we go through life – unique names – that most often aren’t so flattering.
My father told me about a kid in his old Brooklyn neighborhood who everyone called Joey ca-ca (from the Sicilian word cacari), because when he walked, he looked like he was carrying a load of ca-ca in his pants.
Then there was a cousin in his family named Gus. Gus wasn’t the brightest bulb, so everyone referred to him as Gus babbu. No one ever called him that to his face, of course, until my aunt slipped up one day when she answered the door announcing, “Gus babbu is here!”
I almost did the very same thing at my wedding shower when I opened a gift from “fat Mary.” You see, we had two aunts named Mary in our family: one was obese and the other was old. Because they both had the same last name, (the fat one was the older one’s daughter-in-law) the only way we could distinguish between them was to call the obese aunt “fat Mary” and the other one just plain old “Aunt Mary.”
It worked fine when their names came up in private conversations at home, and we never slipped up in person, until I opened that damn gift and someone called out, “Who gave you the soup tureen?”
Without thinking, I started to say, “It’s from F-a.a…” I caught my tongue just in time, as I looked up to see both aunts standing next to each other. I pointed to fat Mary and shouted: “It’s from the young Aunt Mary.”
My grandmother was the queen of nicknames. When she became angry with someone, she picked out the most prominent physical feature about that person and created an unflattering Sicilian nickname for them.
She had a neighbor who lived across the street from her. There was a generational age difference between the two, but both women were Sicilian and that common denominator bound them together real tight – until the neighbor got on the wrong side of my grandmother.
“She’s too bossy,” my grandmother admitted. And besides that (God, forgive me) she was incredibly terribly ugly. She had bad teeth and bad breath and came in too close when she spoke to you, sometimes spraying you with saliva. She was bruttu, as my grandmother would later describe her when the friendship was on the rocks.
Once the friendship had completely dissolved, my grandmother never referred to her ex-friend and neighbor by her real name. She was now La bedda a setti velo – the Beauty of the Seven Veils.
Another one of grandma’s friends was nicknamed– pettu rossu – big breasts, after that friendship went kaput. Setti culu –seven asses – was another woman who fell out of favorable graces with my grandmother. She also had names for some relatives who are still alive and, thus, shall not be named here.
My grandmother had a nickname for me: bedda figghia (beautiful daughter). She called me that for most of my life – until I refused to take her to Pathmark one day. Here’s how my fall from grace went down.
“Bedda figghia, you take me to Pathmark today? They have a sale on cans. I want to get some tomatoes.”
“I can’t, grandma, I’m too busy today.”
“Bedda figghia, the cans are ten for $1. You take me; I’ll buy you some cans.”
“I can’t, grandma; not today.”
– Silence –
“You no take me today?”
– More Silence –
She never called me bedda figghia again, and I’m sure I had a new nickname from that day forward.