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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

“Glenna from where?” said the voice on the other end of the phone. I took a deep breath and held it. I could feel the steam rising.

“From where?” is a question I get asked more often than not when I have to share my full name. You see, my last name is Fraumeni and if you say it quickly it sounds like “from ehni.”

Every single time I have to share my full name, I encounter a slew of responses that mean I have to deliver the following message: My surname is F as in Frank. R. A. U. M as in Mary. E. N as in Nancy. I. When I get to M as in Mary I have to slow myself down because through the thousands of times reciting this poem, I’ve learned people get thrown off by the rhyming M and N.

This happens so often to members of my family that my dad came up with an incredibly Anglo-Saxon alias to use in innocuous situations where a name is required – pizza pickup has never happened with his real name. A few years ago at a family dinner, we went around the table and came up with names that would never require a “Pardon me?” or a “Sorry can you please spell that?” We snort-laughed and critiqued the suggestions being tabled. “Sarah Smith” someone would suggest and the peanut gallery would reply with all the reasons this name wasn’t simple enough. “Is it Sarah with or without an h? or “Are you sure it isn’t Smyth?” In between our piggish laughs we all knew these were the names we secretly dreamed of attaching ourselves to.

It was fun imagining life with a simple name. But the more I thought about it, the more disheartened I became that I would even think about having another name. I felt mad that in our diverse multicultural country, I didn’t seem to love that my name represents just that. I thought of all the times in my 37 years that I have had to spell my name out and all the years I will have to keep doing this. I thought about all the customer service agents who almost seem annoyed that my name isn’t as simple as Carole Brown – I know, I know, Carole with or without an e. Sadly what I have realized is that all I wanted for the longest time was a name that represented everything I do not stand for – the dominance of white North American culture.

Lately I’ve found myself seeking a change in perspective. To move from dreading spelling and sounding out my name to a longing to love the melodious syllables. After all, my name represents my family’s long journey across the Atlantic in search of something better for themselves and future generations.

Fraumeni is Italian – although many people feel free to tell me that I am completely mistaken and that in fact my surname is German. My family lived on the island of Lipari off the coast of Sicily before immigrating to London, Ont., in the early part of the 20th century. My distant ancestors likely left Greece and immigrated to the northern Mediterranean. My great-grandfather, Giovanni Fraumeni, was sent by his parents from Lipari to North America alone when he was just 12 years old. He arrived on this continent like so many others during that time – through Ellis Island. His parents joined him in Canada a few years later.

The name Fraumeni represents so deeply who I am from – brave people living on a tiny island in the Tyrrhenian Sea who fled to an unknown country in hopes of a better life. It represents little things like my olive skin that turns golden brown at the first sign of spring as if preparing for a long summer of Mediterranean sun. It represents two Italian dishes we don’t know the actual names of – we call them Sticky Things and Freshe Maki – that my family lovingly make on special occasions from recipes passed down through generations. Most importantly, my inconvenient name represents bravery and courage, and the traditions and customs of the people who made my existence possible.

Recently while waiting for a prescription I heard the pharmacist call out “Gianna Frumar.” I took a deep breath. I held that deep breath. With steam rising, I stood up and said, “I think you mean me but you didn’t say my name correctly.” “Oh, well close enough,” the pharmacist responded. I guess I could have left it at that but I didn’t. I own my name. It is me. It is my family. And so I asked him to humour me and try again. Eventually he got out a more respectful version of my name. I walked out of the pharmacy proud of myself. I hoped I had done good by my great-grandpa Giovanni who made that long journey to Canada.

In this wonderful country of diverse cultures and religions where we or our family members were all new Canadians at some point, we deserve to have our names pronounced with care. Whether your name has 25 letters or four, an umlaut or a sineadh fada you deserve to love that name and ask for it to be pronounced with care and loving effort.

By the way, the annual Fraumeni family Sticky Thing and Freshe Maki gathering has been postponed (like so many traditions during the pandemic) but if you can pronounceFraumeni” we’re happy to share.

Glenna Fraumeni lives in Toronto.