Nowadays unusual names are all the rage, but in 1986 Staten Island, when your parents make you transfer mid-year to your new junior high school, having missed out on vital teenage lessons (namely how to put on eyeliner and lipstick), it was way cooler to be Lisa or Maria or Jill. As lovely girls named Michelle and Vicky, took me around from class to class, introducing me around, I was fascinated by how boldly they all displayed their names on 3D diamond necklaces and matching script rings.
“Hi, I’m Galina,” I would say, trying to emulate my spunky, confident next door neighbor, Melissa. But teenagers are too busy sizing you up to truly register your name when it sounds foreign. People were always surprised that no Russian accent came out of my mouth.
“What’s your name again?” This to me is always like the “what time is it?” anecdote. You know the one where you see someone look at their watch and immediately afterward you ask them what time it is – and even if it was just ONE SECOND AGO, they look back at their watch. That’s like my name. You need a second look (or listen). In print, my name is like a translated Cyrillic shit show, and to the ears, it’s unpleasant, or at least confusing.
“It’s Galina, with a G.”
No, Galina. G-a-l-i-n-a.”
No. Certainly not Gail, that dreadful name a distant cousin once bestowed upon me. In his effort to become instantly Americanized, he instantly renamed himself and his kids. Igor became Gary and Misha became Mike and of course, Fima became Frank. It seemed the natural progression was to make me Gail. But I cringed. (No offense to the Gails of the world.)
When I learned that Americans had middle names, I desperately wanted one. In Russian, your “middle” name is your patronymic, a name derived from your father’s name.
“Mom, what’s my middle name?”
“You don’t have one. If you did, it would be Galina Semyonovna.”
“Yuck!” My father didn’t even go by Semyon; even he was rebranded as Simon!
Galina Semyonovna. What am I supposed to do with that? That’s certainly not the appropriate name for a woman who drops the F-bomb as often as I do. I said, “no thank you” and continued on with two initials. There was no proof to this name; it didn’t exist on my passport or on my birth certificate bronze coin. In fact, my missing middle name is just like the Hebrew name I gave myself at 40 when I needed a name to put down on my ketubah. It’s a name in spirit only, hovering over my soul, but not really belonging to me.
No, I’ve just got Galina.
I never even had a nickname. My only shot at ultimate naming power was when I got my Cabbage Patch Doll. I would come up with a quintessential name for my blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pacifier-toting, sailor-onesie wearing, ALL-AMERICAN, PLASTIC-HEADED DOLL! After careful consideration, I proudly declared his name would be Christopher.
My mother, upon hearing this declaration, audibly gasped, and blurted out a disdainful “Fu, Nyet!” before she clearly laid down the law with regards to doll naming under her roof. “That is not a Jewish name – and you cannot give my grand-doll a name like that. You’re basically calling him Jesus Christ.”
So I settled on the very Jew-friendly, Daniel Allen Nemirovsky. The cleverest part, I insisted, was that his initials spelled DAN, which was also his nickname – get it?
In seventh grade, someone asked me what my name meant – and I was stumped. As soon as I got wind of the notion, that there could be a greater meaning for my plight as the Galina in a sea of Janes. Once again I approached mama, the Life Encyclopedia, excited to potentially stumble on a nugget of gold.
“Mom, What does my name mean?”
“What do you mean, what does it mean?
“What does Galina mean in Russian?”
“It doesn’t mean anything, we just needed a G name. At first, you were Greta, but your grandmother couldn’t pronounce it. The R in Greta sounded like her dentures were loose. We had to pick another name.”
I liked Greta; it always sounded so more American, even though my midwestern husband assures it is not even close.
In high school, my best friend bought me a baby name book because it had a list of all the names with their respective meanings. Before the Internet allowed us to “click here to personalize” anything, it was rare to see your name in print – especially when your name is GALINA. No mirrored, unicorn keychains with my name on them hanging at the stalls at the mall. At Great Adventure, there were no mugs with Galina on them. So seeing Galina, in print, in any book, was exciting to the 14-year-old me. It was like a prequel to my byline.
I wasted no time flipped to the Gs, finding Galina, and squinted for some grand reveal. Galina is the Russian form of Helen. Really? My name’s meaning was that it wasn’t even good enough to have its own meaning; it was its take on another name!
But it gets better.
Later I learn that Galena, with an e, is both a city in Illinois and a natural mineral. Better still, galena, in Italian and Spanish means hen, specifically “crazy hen.” A few years ago in Venice, we were in a glass shop when the artist overheard my husband call me by my name. He walked over to clarify that he indeed called me Galina – and let out a hardy laugh.
“Oh you see, my wife is galena too — and that’s why we’re now divorced … but oh, don’t these crazy chickens make great lovers?”