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Greek-American Stories: A ‘Kiki’, by Any Other Name

Of course you’ve noticed that I write my name with (‘)s. right? Well, let me explain why this is, even though you may not be interested. I don’t care!

My mother was raised at a time when Greeks and Italians were the ‘new guys on the block’ and were looked upon with suspicion and thorough dislike, to put it in a civil tone. She helped name her brothers and sisters as they registered for school. Argiros was renamed, ‘Rose’, Costantino became, ‘Gus’, ‘Spiro’ was thereafter known as Perry. When her mother went for U.S. citizenship, my mother wrote on the application, ‘Bessie’, from Aspasia.

So, when I was born, my father announced, emphatically, that I was to be named after his mother, Vasiliki. And, no argument, either! In the hospital, when the nurse came round with my birth certificate, my mother was very reluctant to tell the nurse the intended name. Instead, she shrugged and said, “I haven’t decided, yet.” So, my original birth certificate read, “Female.” At home, growing up, I was called, ‘Kiki’ until it came time to register for school. It has to be noted that at the time anti-Greek sentiments still clung. It wasn’t until Greeks made money that the situation changed. My mother, born in Pennsylvania, and having had some experience with the anti-Greek sentiments, hesitated when the registrar asked my name. Three Greek mothers with daughters whom I was acquainted with and lived in the same neighborhood, were ahead of us. I listened, growing annoyed, as Despina became, ‘Debbie’; Evangeline became ‘Eva’. Kaliope was renamed, ‘Kate’. Then it was my turn.

“What’s her name?” asked the stone faced, ‘Amerikanida’. “My mother became fidgety, flushed red, shrugging. “Ahh, well, she is named after my mother-in-law. It’s the custom!” The woman looked up, her expression. plainly impatient. “And, what’s that?” “Vasilki,” my mother muttered, barely.

She herself was christened Kyriaki. Well, she decided that was definitely out. When she went to school, her mother with no English at her command looked down at her daughter for direction. That’s when my mother took up the reins. “My name is Helen!” Yiayia, not really understanding merely, shrugged and accepted whatever occurred.

“Va…what?” said the smirking woman holding the pen up. “Well, she isn’t going through school with that name. What does it mean in English?” My mother looked up, puzzled, uncertain as to how to respond. She thought it had something to do with the plant and with great reserve, told her, “Basil, I guess. I don’t really know.”

The registrar opened a huge book and opening it to the ‘B’s, searched. “Basil, here it is! An, ‘herb’! Well, she can’t be called, ‘Herbie’. She scanned another page. I grew impatient. “I LIKE KIKI!” I said, stamping my foot. She gave me an unfriendly look and continued scanning the pages. I announced, once more, “I LIKE KIKI!” She looked up at me, unsmiling, with an expression that said, ‘I don’t care what you like!” Then she read that Basil is an herb that in scientific terms is Greek for a form of leaf that translated to, ‘Phyllis’. She shut the book and said, “that’s it! Phyllis,” and wrote it down. Near tears, I shouted, “I LIKE KIKI.” My mother gave my hand a firm squeeze and said, “SHHH!” When she handed my mother the paper with my new name on it, Amerikanida looked down at me and said, “Get used to it!” And, then, kinda loud, said, “NEXT!”

So, through the years, I got used to the name that I never really liked. In Junior High School, the wise guys in class, found ways to tease me by twisting my name to other less palatable meanings. That’s when I learned to be amusing, like helping text books go missing. 

In later years, when I did some research, I discovered that the name pertained to Royalty; a royal residence or person. Gee! Maybe, it was best to be named after a leaf. Suppose the real meaning became known to that registrar. I would have been named, ‘Queenie’, after a burlesque dancer. I know that, at the time, had my voice had true value, she would, probably, have named me, ‘A royal pain!’ Like Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would still smell sweet.” Yeah!

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