Knicknames and Cousins


Knicknames and Cousins


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By Sandra Winicur

From the time we were ten or twelve, every cousin of my generation in my mother's family was labeled much as in the reputed manner of some American Indian tribes, by giving the child a nickname encompassing his or her characteristics. Actually, now that we are all well past 40, I can see how these names turned out to be somewhat predictive for the six of us, mainly because they tended to govern attitudes of other family members towards us and hence had an effect on our behavior.

My Uncle Morris's children were the first to be so defined. Rita, a year my senior, was a quiet and studious girl, able to spend hours in a corner sketching cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on random scraps of paper. I always enjoyed visiting her because she and her brother owned stacks of real comic books, and all I was ever allowed to buy were Classic Comics, those 20 or 30 page illustrative versions of literary works. Although my mother believed that she was promoting my acculturation this way, my worst nightmares are still likely to be inhabited by their renditions of Bill Sikes beating his girlfriend Nancy to death, or Rochester's mad wife descending from the attic with her flowing white gown ablaze.

Rita was always Quiet Rita. Everyone looked surprised when she opened her mouth, so by the time she was ten, she rarely did. I since have reason to believe that she was downright chatty with her school friends, but as a child she developed a protective cloak of silence at family gatherings that I grew to envy.

Her younger brother Harold, usually given in Yiddish as Herschel der Vilde Chaya, (Hershel the wild animal) was a prankster with a varying repertoire. I can still see the little wooden red wagon with his name painted on it heading for my shins faster than I could run away. I remember the panic one summer day of my four year old brother Michael, a year his junior, when Harold convinced him that if I had not yet returned from picking blueberries in the back acreage of my grandfather's farm in the Catskills, then I had definitely been eaten by some predatory animal. "Yum," Harold was saying as I came in with a large pot full of berries in time to see him standing menacingly over my frightened brother with his hands up like the paws of an attacking bear. Nor has my brother ever forgiven him for the time two years later when Harold taught him to curse in Yiddish. He convinced Michael that it was a language of his own invention, which none of us realized until Michael addressed an extremely improper statement to a bearded old man emerging from the neighborhood synagogue. The man berated him appropriately and my brother turned to me with a puzzled expression. "How does he know Harold's secret language?" he asked me. Now Harold is decent and religiously observant, but twenty years ago Harold was still hiding his stash when he thought there might be police in the neighborhood.

Having learned to read by the age of 3, I received early definition as Smart Sandra. It didn't really matter to my mother whether or not I wanted to be at the top of my class; I spent a great deal of my childhood explaining why I had missed five points on an exam on which I had brought home a 95 when Brenda, whose father was only a hairdresser, had gotten a 97. This set me up for future statements from my mother of the nature of..."I don't know what good all your brains have done you. Look at......." (fill in at will - how you're dressed, whom you're marrying, how you're raising your children, etc.)

My brother, younger than most of us and a trusting if mischievous child, suffered from his family position. He wanted, or so my mother convinced him, to become a doctor, which status he eventually achieved. However, his elementary school days were given to oinking in class, making frequent and inappropriate use of a water pistol, and producing life-sized mannequins by stuffing his clothing with newspaper and making paper bag heads, which he either hid in his bed to watch our mother try to wake in time for school or tossed off the five-story roof of our building with appropriate sounds when an especially stodgy neighbor was passing. By the time he reached high school he was known to family and friends as Crazy Michael. His wife, who met him in college as a serious pre-med student, assumed that the nickname was of the same ilk as calling a tall man "Shorty" or a bald one "Curly". "Then I married him," she said, "and I found out who Crazy Michael was."

This labeling phenomenon was first noticed by my cousin Kenneth, or rather Kenneth-Who-Wasn't-Going-To-College. Kenneth was an inventive child - bored one afternoon with watching me read Grimm's Fairy Tales in his room when he wanted to play, he asked me if I had noticed his wood-burning set.

"Mmhmm," I said absent-mindedly, engrossed in Rose Red and Snow White.

"It burns anything," he said.

"Mmhmm," I responded, having gotten to a scary part in the tale.

"Even flesh," he said. "Want to see?"

"Mmhmm," I said, predictably.

Kenneth insisted through the subsequent spanking and wood burner confiscation from his father that it wasn't fair because I had asked him to do it, and I still have a little white mark on my knuckle to prove the efficacy of that toy. Kenneth indeed did not go to college.

His sister Marlene, or Shy Marlene, was five to ten years younger than the rest of us. Since she was so adept at blending into the surroundings, we didn't really know her well. However, I think she had been quietly watching us for years. As soon as she was old enough, she headed across the country to California and became a psychologist.


from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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