March 22, 2016

WHITE KNUCKLES | Spell it Right

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Starbucks never gets my name wrong: bold and thick, the four letters written with the sharpie mark my Cinnamon Chai Latte with comforting exactitude. My mother hated her name, could not bear the length of it, the excessive r’s and the harshness of the t, or maybe because of the fact that it was two names stitched together. For me, she wanted something short, the smoothness of the bilabial consonant, the bright ringing of vowels; she liked the literariness to it and its universality. It is impossible to mispronounce, to be  corrupted by accents or unconventional variations or too many confusing syllables. During my exchange year in Maine, my little host brother used to spell it “Ma,” because “M is pronounced Em, and a is pronounced a.” Like the clarity of a crystal, it was simple and immediate. No Starbucks barista has ever doubted the spelling.

In Italy, my name was fairly uncommon until recently, but ever since I moved here I’ve had to include the first letter of my last name to avoid confusion. Sometimes even the whole last name: five more letters, still a lot of vowels, a silvery sound, a hiatus. I sign most emails with only my first name and love notes with only an E. I tend to turn around more often than I need to, because I am still somehow unaccustomed to so many others around me who respond to the same m’s, who are labeled by the same resounding vowels.

I have never really stopped to think about my name too much, as it so happens with things that we can’t change and do not anger us. My mother has often spoken, with long-lasting and unabating regret, of the discomfort of not fitting in your name, as if it was a dress too tight, or a shoe too small, or a ring that doesn’t let the blood circulate in your hand, a ring you didn’t even like but wanted to try, a ring you can’t take off now, not even with a lot of soap to make it slippery. But I never really understood the warm smile that exploded on my face when someone greeted me by my name rather than a nod of the head or the timid wave of a gloved hand. I don’t know if our names belong to us, or if it is we who belong to them, but either way, they don’t work as labels. During one of my Manhattan strolls, I passed by a store where one could create a personalized perfume; I leaned on the window, spotting cinnamon sticks and lavender and petals, and I left thinking that names kind of work the same way. When you wear it with confidence, it becomes you; the people who know you down to the curve of your neck will recognize the scent, an unbreakable bond between fragrance and soul.

I’ve gotten to know several other Emmas, mostly in novels, and I wished many times that the name alone would give me their charm, or courage, or wits. We are all named after someone, which is a responsibility as well as a possibility: starting as a legacy, we end up creating a heritage if we realize that our name is the perfect mixture of fragments of scents and perfumes, traits and experiences, that a fragrance extends farther and deeper when we also recognize it as someone’s.  To those who are horrified by the recent trend of creating new names for new relationships, new problems, new struggles and new identities, they must be reminded that a name alone does not make a thing real, but it is real things that claim names and make them glow with familiar spellings, perfect vowels, blazing sounds.

Emma is a junior Classics major in the College of Arts and Sciences. An Italian native, she loves Virginia Woolf and dreads Ithaca winters. She writes about her experience at Cornell as an international student, and has an uncontrollable passion for excessively long sentences and vivid metaphors. She can be usually found enjoying a soup in Temple of Zeus, and can be reached at [email protected]