Thursday, December 12, 2013

what's in a name?

Filomena & John with five of the husbands, Christmas 1946.
My dad is the uniformed officer.

My grandmother, Filomena Contella, immigrated to America from Italy in the early 20th century. She was promised to my grandfather, a well-to-do man from upstate New York. They had seven daughters during their marriage, my mother being number five and "daddy's favorite." (This, according to my Aunt Evelyn, who I've written about here.)

My mother often relegated the tale of my name whenever my birthday would come round on the calendar. Born in 1951 on a rainy, snowy day in February, my mother decided she wanted to name me after my grandmother, "but, the American translation." She told how she was going to name me Cheryl Constance, in honor of her mom. She said I would have had beautiful monograms with two "C"s in my name. {Don't snicker.}

As the story goes, when my mom announced to my dear grandmother that she was going to name me Cheryl Constance, my grandmother said if my mother wanted to use half of her name, she had to use all of it. Period. My grandmother, who was called Filomena even by her own daughters, always got her way with my mother. (And, my aunts, too!) So it was ... I was christened Phyllis Constance.

My family called me "Phyllis," except for my Aunt Christine who called me "Fifi." She didn't like the name either. But, it wasn't until I started first grade at Woodlawn Elementary School that I began to hate my first name.

If you Google "Phyllis," the first suggested entry is "Phyllis Diller." From Wikipedia comes this: "In the mid-1950s, she made appearances on The Jack Paar Show and was a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life.  Diller was part of the so-called "New Wave" comedians who began their careers after World War II and had no connections to vaudeville." She was loud. Her hair was wild. She wore outrageous costumes. And, the grown-ups loved her.

Diller on "Laugh In"
For those too young to remember this mid-century, modern woman, Diller was self-deprecating to a fault. A typical Diller joke had her running after a garbage truck pulling away from her curb. "Am I too late for the trash?" she'd yell. The driver's reply: "No, jump right in!"

Now that I think of it, she was, perhaps, the first in a new genre of comediennes that lead us to Roseanne. Their comedy comes from real life, with a twist. But, to a seven-year-old girl, it wasn't funny. It was mean spirited teasing from other first graders and by the end of my first year in school, I hated my name.

Other girls had names like Linda and Emily and Audrey and Diane. Real girl names. Names that said they were girls! I had "Phyllis," which sounded harsh and almost evil, like it was a curse. Which it was. Inevitably, in every new grade, in every new class, some sniggering jerk (males AND females) would make a joke about my name with a reference to Phyllis Diller. It didn't matter that Diller was so much more than a comedienne. She played piano. She painted. She made movies. She was an artist. It was her 'celebrity' status as a bawdy comedienne that made her my nemesis.

Then, I went to college. And, things changed.

During my sophomore year, I began an affair with my algebra professor. He lived aboard his sailboat and rode a bike everywhere. It was Key West in the early 1970s. At dinner one night, aboard his boat, he asked me about my name. He usually referred to me as "Miss P," and I suspected that he didn't like my name, but I was too afraid to ask. Anyway, this one evening I told him the story of my mother and how I got my name. When I had finished telling my story, he stated that he really liked "Constance." He said my middle name over and over, making silly sentences, causing me to feel silly. Then he announced that he was going to call me "Constance."  And, he did.

And, it stuck.

Here I am, 40+ years later, and 99% of the people in my life call me "Constance." My driver's license and passport have my first AND my middle name. It screws up the computers to go by anything other than your first name, but I prevailed. I found a way to keep it. And, I'm glad I did. I enjoy being "Constance."

Sometimes folks get confused and call me "Candace." I don't mind that so much. It's an easy mix up. However, I don't answer to "Connie." Again, another poor association with celebrities of the same name. It makes the hair on my arms stand up when someone reduces my name to THAT. I do try to be tolerant, but is it too much to ask for people to use your name the way you present it to them? If I introduce myself as "Bill," are you going to call me "William?"  If I tell you my name is "Margaret," are you going to refer to me as "Peggy?" What gives you the authority to change a person's name?

To young parents-to-be out there ... please give serious consideration to how the name you give your child will affect them throughout their life. I know I'm not the first person to say that, but I AM a person who had a name that caused unhappiness. It took many years to come to understand  that my mother meant well, but the truth is, "Cheryl" would have been so much better.

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