House

By Cris Mazza

Essay

Prickett Backwaters“Dogwood,” Silver Mountain Road, Ottawa National Forest, Upper Peninsula, Michigan

I haven’t written a fishing essay, nor sat on a lakeshore, writing. The former: I still will not have, including this one. It’s not about fishing. The latter: I likewise still haven’t. Although I set up my camp chair last night at the lake, my notebook remained on the passenger seat of the Jeep. Was going to go back for the paper and pen, but a bluegill took the bait I’d put in the water before unfolding the chair. Then I never did get the notebook, or sit, the remaining 90 minutes I fished.

Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week we’ll ask a different writer five questions on the subject.

Lou Beach is an illustrator, artist, and writer. He recently published 420 Characters, a book of short fiction which also features 10 original collages. He inhabits many states of mind but is most at home in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife, the photographer Issa Sharp. Their days are spent hobnobbing with celebrities and the literary elite, heads of state and captains of industry. Lou is debonair, fluid in twelve languages and an expert marksman. He has a Chihuahua and two human children.

Writers are by definition concerned with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week we’ll ask a different writer five questions on the subject.

Steve Almond is our guest this week. He’s the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently God Bless America and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

 

It surprised me when I first came to Korea and realized that Korean kids were given English names. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t they just keep their Korean name? Does an English name really make it easier for the kids to learn, or is it for the benefit of native teachers?

Of course, in the year and a half that has since elapsed, I’ve become more than used to the system of ‘education’ in Korea. I no longer question giving kids an English name, because I’m asked to do it at least once a week. However, a few more questions have since come to mind:

 

My grandather, Marvin, has half a dozen friends that go by “Buddy.” Not a one, I’d venture to guess, has the name “Buddy” on his birth certificate.  But there they all are: Buddys, every one.  A whole generation with just one nickname.

***

Ashkenazic tradition dictates that Jewish babies be named after a recently deceased relative. It is in this way that I got my name, Marni.

I’m named after my paternal great-grandfather, Mike. A man my father knew as Poppy Mike. A man my father loved.

“I wish you could have known him,” my father says to me. “You would have loved him.” And, as an afterthought, “he would have really loved you.”

Mike, I realize, sounds nothing like Marni. But Mike’s Hebrew name, Yitzhak, means laughter. And my name, Marni, means rejoice. My mother, in her infinite wisdom, decided that joy and laughter were pretty much one in the same and called it a day.

There’s something profound in that equation. Laughter = joy. A life without laughter is a life without joy.

And so I was named Marni. Rejoice! A name prone to mispronunciations and misspellings. Marny and Marnie and Marnee and Marie and once, Marini. I had a boss who called me Marini. She had it printed on my nametag. I continued to answer to “Marini” for weeks, never bothering to correct her.

Sometimes, when children call for their mommy, I think they’re asking for me.

***

I wasn’t supposed to be named after Mike. Which is to say that my name wasn’t supposed to be Marni. Rather, I was to be named Celeste. And then Poppy Mike died and Celeste became my middle name.

I feel fairly certain that, had I been named Celeste, my life would have been radically different.

Celeste means heavenly and is the name of a willowy blonde. Celeste has delicate ringlets and slender wrists and wears a lot of lace and chiffon. Celeste doesn’t sweat or fart. Celeste is dreamy and gentle and otherworldly. Celeste, I think, would have been pretty. I imagine her, 23 now, in some alternate universe. My beautiful doppelganger. She got the looks and I got the biting wit.

According to the United States Social Security Administration, Celeste was the 437th most popular name the year I was born. It should be noted here that Marni has never been in the top 1000 most popular names.

Celeste Grossman. Can you picture it?

***

Grossman. Gross Man. Gross, man!

You think you’re so fucking clever.

***

My mother and father are products of their generation.

In 1955, Deborah was the 2nd most popular name and Debra the 4th most popular. Debbie was 63. My mother entered a world overrun by other Debbies. She even had to contend with the snack maven, Little Debbie. She wasn’t unique. She was one of many.

My father’s name, Jerome, has long since fallen out of favor. 1953 was a different story. #107. Its derivative, Jerry, was #29. These days he’s Jerome Grossman, Esq. And he’s not the only one. Google it. There’s one in every state and at least four in Manhattan and another handful in LA.

But my father is Jerome K. Grossman. The K stands for Kent. The cigarette company. I swear. Scout’s honor.

***

There’s another Marni Grossman out there. A film and television photographer from Toronto. She has her own website and imdb page. Nearly all our google results are about her. Which shouldn’t make me bitter but does. The other Marni Grossman worked on “Scary Movie 3.”

I know her, actually.

Well, sort of.

When I was seventeen I struck up an internet friendship with her. “Dear Ms. Grossman, this is a strange e-mail to write and an even stranger one to receive. We have the same name.” Something like that.

The other Marni Grossman- Marni Gayle Grossman- is lovely. She’s prodigiously talented. She has two kids. A daughter and a son and a thriving career. She likes hiking and outdoorsy things. She likes the Canadian mountains and grizzly bears. She has something of a hippie-Walden-back-to-nature ethos.

The only thing Marni Gayle and I share is a name.

Over the years, we lost touch. I went to college and she went on shooting Anna Faris and Susan Sarandon.

I’m still the only Marni Celeste Grossman I know. I like it that way.

***

My grandmother, Myra, had a gold necklace with a large M charm. The M was a large capital letter in block print. She wore it all the time. I remember it vividly. And, when I was small, she’d sit next to me while I took my bath and recite all the family members whose names began with M. “ ‘M,’” she’d say, “is for Myra. And Marvin. And Molly and Mike and Max and Marni!” She’d point to me and I’d squirm with pride and pleasure. M is for Marni, M is for Marni. Marni, Marni, Marni…

Grandma promised me that necklace. But it’s gone now. Misplaced in the passing of years. Somewhere in the haystack of old birthday cards and dated clothing and broken dustbusters. Just underneath that pile of discarded paperbacks and stumps of lipstick. “Oh honey,” Grandma sighed. “I lost that years ago.” Grandma’s M necklace went the way of the Buddies. Into a database kept by the Social Security Administration.  A thin gold needle in the haystack of history.