My cat is sitting on my lap. I type…he snoozes. He is fourteen, and like the immortal he believes himself to be, he boasts many names: Garfield, Radar, Twitch, Francesco, Kitty…snapshots that capture aspects of who he is and the sensibilities of those who tagged him.
The authority to bestow a name is reserved only for gods, parents and shamans, for only they have the power to capture the spirit of a being. And through this holy and dangerous ability wisdom sometimes moves imperfectly like a misstep in a dance. We never name ourselves. This activity belongs to the pantheon of three that either blesses or curses us.
My name begins beneath a shady tree in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Long before I am born, an Italian boy is reading the exploits of Gianni a young lad who travels the world in search of adventure with his dog and horse. The boy, my father, is enthralled with the stories of this courageous wanderer and decides that if he has a son, he will call him by that name. And through it he will give his son what he cherishes most in himself.
In 1949 I squeal into the world and am given two middle names: Eugenio Max. The first is a tribute to my grandfather, and the second embodies my father’s ambitions displayed on the screen of the outdoor theatre he operates for a time. There, Hollywood stokes his dreams and invites him to come to the other side of the ocean. Max is anything but Italian – it is American and exudes adventure, opportunity and the promise of a new life. At the baptismal font he is resolved to have the priest christen me Gianni Eugenio Max. But this is not to be.
As the priest tips water onto my forehead this shaman repeats an incantation that is two thousand years old: “I baptize you,” he intones, “Gianni Eugenio Ma…Max?” He asks, puzzled and distressed. “Max is not an Italian name…Marco…Marco is better.” And thus he inscribes my baptismal certificate: Gianni Eugenio, Marco. In an exercise of power as old as the village, this priest, this stranger, usurps my father’s authority. But Max will not be denied. He lies curled and warm in my father’s heart, and sails to the new world to prepare a better life for us.
In 1955 I am five and a half years old and I live in Prince Rupert, British Columbia – a Canadian rainforest of ravens, eagles and the native myths that glide with them over a primordial canopy of emeralds. I am in the first grade and sit in my row of blonde wooden desks with the sunken inkwells. With effort I am printing my name, Gianni. Our teacher, the nun with the black and white-winged habit, like a giant bird, floats toward me. She smells like a mother, and on my scribbler her thick red pencil prints JOHNNY and tells me to copy it. I am puzzled, but she is teacher, great bird and earth mother rolled into one. She is a goddess and she must know, better than I, who I am.
In the second grade another Italian boy – another JOHNNY – comes to class. The conclave of demigods, known as our friends, call us Little Johnny and Big Johnny to distinguish us in conversation. I am the former and am chafed by that diminutive throughout the lower grades. No kid, raised in the Fifties on a diet of John Wayne, Garry Cooper and Elvis wants to be called ‘little’, although I am always the shortest, skinniest, youngest guy in the class. But such is the Adamic power of naming. It captures the essence of a thing, the soul of a person, and forever pins him like an insect on display.
I am now in seventh grade. I wear horn-rimmed glasses and Sister Mary Vincent, Superior of the convent, assails us with information. She is rake thin, face like a hatchet, and fingers of bone. I am writing a lesson at my desk, my name dutifully spelled and underlined in regulation red when suddenly she descends from somewhere – a crane with stiletto beak – and points to my name: “Johnny’s a name for a child.” She says, “You’re too old for that now…write John.” I feel uneasy. But who am I to resist this Superior, this bony, bitch goddess of the underworld?
Years pass…I am seventeen and have morphed into John Eugene Mark, all vestiges of my heritage erased from my name. And yet, this obliteration is a kind of turning point: I am a freshman and in love with an older woman, one year my senior. I speak of my Italian heritage and somehow she playfully transforms Venice into Vienna, and thereafter my friends affectionately call me The Vienna Kid. I call her Stevie after Steve Reeves an actor who portrays Hercules, for she is ironically gentle and feminine. My roommate’s name is Animal and two others are called Basil and Miguel. This feels better somehow…something is occurring that I see only now in the rear-view mirror.
The Sixties drive by in a roar of psychedelia, protest and hitchhike tours through Europe. And 1973 finds me teaching high school in a Northern Canadian Pulp Mill town. Eleanor drifts into my life: “So…what’s your name in Italian?” She asks. When I tell her why it changed she challenges me with the obvious: “Why don’t you take it back?” I think – yeah…why not? And I come full circle. Canadians make great attempts to pronounce Gianni correctly. It seems to require effort – they are clumsy with the pronunciation and betray a secret resentment in their attempt to shorten and transmute it into something different. The birds are back, pecking and wheedling at my name like some nut to be cracked and eaten.
For years I persist, educating all newcomers to the correct pronunciation. When 1981 arrives, it does so on the wings of a cruel recession; everywhere homes are foreclosed and the thrift of years dissolves into puddles of sadness. I leave the North for the Sonoran desert of Tucson and find that Americans are worse with what is unfamiliar. My girlfriend whose name inexplicably evolved from Elizabeth into Minga wants to call me Gian, no matter how much I insist otherwise. We part and I meet my wife of twenty-five years who faithfully pronounces a name that is lovely, but strange on her tongue. When I tell her that Gianni means Johnny and that Giovanni means John, she suggests that my frustration could end if I called myself Giovanni. It is much easier to pronounce, she says – and she is right. This is my maternal Grandfather’s name. It resonates within me. It seems like a perfect solution.
Thereafter, when I introduce myself, strangers are charmed by my name while females cluck and coo at the romantic fantasies it triggers within them. I am not accustomed to this response. I expect that someone will swoop down to peck this gosling I have embraced. But despite the occasional beak that wants to call me Gio or Joe, people catch on and they are comfortable. I am Giovanni Eugenio Marco, and I am at rest…at least until I die. I have left instructions: my tombstone must read: ‘Gianni Eugenio Marco’. Max be damned – the priest was right!
My cat is sitting on my lap. I type…he snoozes, and doesn’t care what I call him. In dreams he is the hunter, birds quiver and call him master. He is Lord of his domain – a place with no name.