My name has always been a little problematic. It’s not Elizabeth or Elisabeth. Not even Bethany or Bethani or Bethanie. Just Beth. Sometimes, people have a hard time wrapping their brains around this fact. For some people, it does not compute, which compels me to explain that my middle name is Beth.
“So your name is Beth Beth?” you ask, a smirk tilting your lips. Don’t try to be cute. You’re not cute.
My snarky response to your absolutely adorable question: “Yes, my parents named me Beth Beth. They thought it would impress people and win me lots of friends,” I want to say with a roll of my eyes. But my brain clamps down on the words before they reach my mouth.
My aggravated response to your ridiculous (and you know it’s ridiculous) question: “No, smartass. My first name is Mary, but I go by my middle name. Talk to my parents if you don’t like it,” I want to shout. Again, my brain shuts that shit down before it slips past my tongue.
My actual response: I don’t call you on making fun of me but instead say, “No, my first name is Mary. I go by my middle name because I’m named after my mom. She’s always been Mary, and I’ve always been Beth.”
My last name is equally problematic. Hardly anyone can pronounce it correctly the first time... or the second... or ever. All those letters intimidate people.
My last name is Pontorno. Just like it says at the top of the page. No, not Portono or Paterno. Not even Ponterno. Nope, not Pontanaro, either. Stop. You’re panicking. Just stop, breathe, and listen for a moment. First, the only vowel is an O.
Sigh. Not Porno. Definitely not Porno. Now, you’re just trying to be cute. I’ve already told you you’re not cute.
Let’s take a trip back to the first grade and sound this baby out. First syllable is pon, as in Pontiff. As in, “Forgive me, Pontiff, for I have sinned.” Second syllable is tor, as in tore. As in, “I punched that jerk in the face for asking me if my name was Beth Beth and tore my rotator cuff.” Last syllable is no. This one is easy. As in, “No, Pontiff, I don’t feel remorse for punching someone who made fun of my name, but I know I must atone.” 500 Hail Marys later, and we put it all together to get Pon-tor-no.
Easy, right? “Does she really think she’s important enough for the Pope to hear her confession?” I hear you say to your companion in a Jim Gaffigan-esque side whisper. No, I don’t. I’m exaggerating to make my point. I think I’ve only gone to confession twice in my entire life. But I bet you’ll never again forget how to pronounce my last name.
No one in my immediate family has it easy in the name department. My mom’s maiden name is Aukward. Yes, like awkward. No, she’s not awkward. But she did marry a man with an awkward-to-pronounce name. His name is Gervasio Pontorno, and he’s my dad. Pick your chin up off the floor, and close your gaping mouth. Yes, that’s my dad’s real name. It’s also my brother’s name. I’m not going to sound out Gervasio for you because both my dad and my brother have nicknames. My dad goes by Jim, and my brother goes by Jerry.
Here’s the story: Gervasio is Italian for Jerome. Hence, the nickname Jerry, which covers my brother. The path to my dad’s nickname is more complex. My grandparents named my dad after my grandmother’s father. My great-grandfather's name was Gervasio Mazzucco, and he was born in Italy. When he immigrated to America, he told people to call him Jerry. At the time, there were lots of immigrants with lots of different accents, and the various accents made it sound like people were calling him Cherry instead of Jerry. Cherry wouldn’t do, so he started telling people, “Just call me Jim.” I know what you’re thinking. “But Beth Beth, doesn’t that mean everyone called him Chim?” I assume so, but I guess Chim was better than Cherry. Don’t worry, though. One day, everyone was able to pronounce Jim as Jim, and that’s why my dad is called Jim.