As I pointed out in a previous post, my father was the youngest (and angriest) of seven children - each of whom had their own wonderful and unique personalities. The steadiest was my Uncle Maury, who once over saw the State of Ohio's reformatory system, and because of this, he was lucky enough (in a dubious sense) to win of the Fickle Finger of Fate award, on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. Still, if I ever needed a bomb diffused, Maury would have been my choice - the man was the epitome of steady.
The most entertaining of the Aunt's and Uncle's (and their spouses) - and trust me there was never a dull moment in the family - was, however my Aunt Nan, the third of the seven children. Nan never married, and spent most of her life living with and taking care of my grandparents, and clucking over the pack of nieces and nephews that sprang forth from her brothers and sisters.
Nicknames are often a form of endearment, or a point of derision, depending under what circumstances and who is involved. For Jewish immigrants coming into the US in the early 20th Century, there was a pretty wide spread belief that if you were going to make it in the USA, then one had to assimilate. And in a nation WASPs, being named Moses could be the just the thing to give one a life time of peddling things from a cart on a street corner, but after taking the name "Maurice" now you had an air of distinction about you. For women - the name of Gettle was a ticket to a tenement, but pick a spicier name such as Jesse or even Trudy (never Gertrude) and its easier to pass through the portal of respectability and into a good marriage.
No one embraced this ideal more than our Aunt who never had children of own, but spent the better part of her life renaming the children of others. She got her start early in the renaming business in the family and eventually she was at the top - the Queen Royale of Nomeclature for all of East 144th Street.
She started with herself.
Born "Anna" she morphed her name into Annie by 1915, and then when the roaring twenties started to growl, and she bought her first bottle of ink eradicator, Annie disappeared and "Nan" - a fiery name for the era - emerged. Buy the time I was born she was using "Nan" formally, but to her friends, she was Nancy. Eventually Nancy grew long in the tooth and replaced by Nanette, which appears on her grave marker. I don't know if she ever legally changed her name, I just know that "Annie" is enumerated on her father's naturalization papers and "Nanette" appears on the grave marker.
Some of the nicknames didn't take a lot of imagination. My brother Richard became "Rich", never Rick or Dick - just Rich. Nan's sister Betty married a man named Louis and the two of them were inseparable, so they became "BettyNLou" - others followed in line. My Aunt Miriam was "Mim". Simple, but they "fit".
She used the same abstract sense while giving everyone nicknames, too.
Because I was born on Thanksgiving Day, Nan insisted on calling me "Tom Turkey" much to my dread. Its bad enough being called Tom Turkey when you're a kid, but as a teenager, it was a curse. Yet she never deviated. Tom Turkey I was until she caught on that I stayed away until she she relinquished.
Some people got nicknames, others didn't. My father "Marvin" remained Marvin for his whole life under the Nan Naming Convention. His twin brother Sanford became Stan, Stanny and then Taffy. "Taffy" took with my Aunt's and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. If you asked who was bring my grandmother somewhere, Nan would say "Taffy is bringing her over." To a stranger, it sounded like the family hired a former stripper, not a 6 foot 250 pound man to act as the family chauffeur.
Then there is the Evelyn, Ev, Evie, Lynn controversy. My father's youngest sister was born Evelyn. At various points in life, she was Evelyn, Ev and Evie. I grew up calling her Aunt Evie. When I was 15 I went to a bar mitzvah in Cleveland and was informed by my Aunt Evie that she was never Evie - she was now - always - Lynn. To prove this, she pointed to a gold pendent around her neck that proclaimed that she was LYNN. This caused problem's because my cousin Dave was married to a woman named Lynn. As far as I was concerned, Dave's Lynn got there first. This lead to clarifications about who was attending and which would be there. Someone would say "Oh, Lynn?" and the two women answered.
Nan also had secret names for some people. Take my father's third wife, please. Her name was "Betty", but since we already had a Betty in the family, and all of the cousins were old enough to drop the "Aunt" charade, "Aunt Betty" stood alone in the family, while my father's wife was either referred to as "Marvin's Betty", "Marvin's wife Betty" or "the bottle blond."
Nan, try as she might, couldn't help but see that my father's wife was a lot of trouble just waiting to happen. As far as Nan was concerned, once the ice was broken with "Marvin's Betty", family members simply didn't need to use her name. Instead, she became whatever needed to be done: "Could you pass me the salt?" was a perfectly simply way to address my stepmother without engaging her. If Nan had to introduce her, she would rely upon "and in the corner is Marvin's wife" and keep moving on. This was Nan's way of indicating that the woman in the white go-go boots and hot pants was just passing through, as it were and really wasn't really in the family. She was simply welcome until my father filed for divorce, which we all hoped would be soon.
However it was with my father's last wife that Nan rested her most exacting nickname. Final Stepmother was and probably still is, how do you say, a woman of opinions. She and Nan went head to head the night before my father's funeral in front of the Rabbi. Without beating around the bush, my "Stepmother" (who I nicknamed "Shark") called my mother a "bitch" and tempers flared. Under her breath, and in extreme exasperation my 83 year old Aunt Nan, eyes locked on the widow, uttered the word that I had wanted to say but didn't dare utter that night. She used the "K" word. Before the end of the night Nan did extend an invitation to Shark to go and "Gey kukken afen yam," which roughly translate into "go shit in the ocean."
On the ride home that night, emotionally exhausted and all, Nan amended her nickname for my father's widow, and instead preferred to call her the "Vildya Chia."
"Who's Wilda Chia?" I asked
"Marvin's widow," Nan explained "It's Yiddish for "Wild Beast". Its a better fit."
And like all good nicknames, it stuck. Because like all good nicknames, it was all about getting a very good "fit".