top of page

The Name Puzzle by Linda Petrucelli

The Name Puzzle
The Petrucelli Family


1. Ritual touching of the shoulder with a sword Mother liked to pretend that my name was a family decision. I was the third child born to Donato and Carmella Petruccelli of Davenport, Iowa. My older sister was named Amalia. My older brother was named Vincenzo. Why was I named Linda Sue? A few days after my birth, mother carried me into our grey stucco home on Dennison Avenue. In the living room, my parents convened a family incontro to decide what to name me. My father liked Teresa, his sister’s name. But my mother objected. Teresa— T.T. as we called her— had married poorly and mother didn’t want to saddle me with her fate. After some deliberation, my sister and brother suggested Candy. Years later, my father told me that mother was the one who christened me and I became the first Linda Susan in our family. I asked him why mother liked that name so much, hoping for a clue to the destiny that was perhaps lurking in my name. Dad answered that she thought the name sounded “American.”

2. Last name My grandfather Vincenzo and great-uncles Giovanni and Dominic were shoemakers who migrated from Naples to Boston and then moved once again to the western bank of the Mississippi River where it curls like a cup on its side. According to family lore, the three brothers relocated their families to the Midwest because they wanted to see the Indians. I think that makes them sound more adventurous than they were. They moved to Iowa and opened a shoe repair shop in the basement of Parker’s department store. It smelled of leather hides and strong glue. On the wall above a row of whirling brushes, where my grandfather buffed dusty shoes into a shine, hung a black and white photograph in a silver frame. There was Uncle Dominic who wore a stained and wrinkled apron that covered his chest. In his right hand, he held up a miniature loving cup—an award the shop had won for excellence in shoe design—his pinky finger arched as if delicately toasting a glass of grappa. My father was the eldest, the first born in Massachusetts, but raised in the new land of opportunity, Iowa. Dad grew up speaking Italian and living in a brick apartment building downtown where he grew rhubarb, tomatoes and grapes in the vacant lot across from their fire escape. His dream was to become a dentist but strong-willed Vincenzo told him no. No son of his would smell other people’s breath. My father possessed deep spiritual longings and thought for a while that he’d make a good priest. Vincenzo said, “You’ll go to law school,” and my father became a lawyer. My brother followed in his footsteps.

3. Verbal insult: name-_______ I see the big boys in school. They lean against the long row of metal lockers, whispering. They say “Hey you,” and I can’t help but turn my head. The plaid kilt I’m wearing opens slightly and I’m embarrassed they can see my slip as I walk by. They slap their hands together, their open palms smacking with a loud swat. They say, “Wop. Wop,” and howl, hysterical hyenas. When I tell my mother what the boys said, she becomes enraged and begins to swear in Italian. She wants to know their names, calls the teacher, questions the assistant principal, even though I beg her not to. The following week, there are no Wop Wop sounds in the hallway that leads to Mr. Hilbert’s science class. But suddenly a locker door slams shut like a bear trap and I see the big boys waiting for me. “Hey!” they yell at my back as I run past them. “Come back here Petrified Celery!” Looking for an escape hatch, I push open the door to the girl’s bathroom, and check to see if they are following me. Two of them are doubled over and hold their sides, laughing wildly. The other one salutes me with an outstretched hand and calls me Mussolini.

4. “A rose by any other _____ would smell as sweet. ”One day I came home from elementary school in tears. I had been taking the Iowa Pupils Basic Skills Test in homeroom. Armed with No. 2 lead pencils, Miss Moe directed us to fill in our names letter by letter inside a row of empty squares, just like a crossword puzzle. But my name was too long by one letter. It didn’t fit in the standardized form, so I tried to make it fit. I used the eraser on my pencil. The soft paper tore easily and whorls of pink scabs scarred the page. I started over, gripped the pencil till my fingers hurt, but the result was the same. There weren’t enough boxes to accommodate me, except now I had erased holes in the paper. When Miss Moe looked over my shoulder and saw my mangled test, she accused me of goofing off and sent me to the principal’s office. After mom heard what happened, she lit a cigarette and started pacing until it became clear what to do. All of us would shorten our last name by one C. That was as much of a solution as she could offer. Altering a name was nothing new to our family. My father’s cousin in Winchester, Massachusetts, went from the odd-looking Silvestri to the simpler Silvester and my mother’s brother-in-law reformed Del Tufo into the idyllic Dell instead.

5. The way things are: name of the _______ I hear father whispering to mother in the bedroom. The door is halfway open and they are sitting on the edge of the bed next to each other. Dad is calling people S.O.B.’s and my mother shouts, “Fanabala!” Dad holds a sheet of paper in his hand and he crumples it into a tiny ball, then throws it down like it’s on fire. Our family has been denied entry into The Outing Club, Davenport’s most exclusive social institution. They are certain it is because of our last name.

6. Assumed name Despite my mother shortening our last names, my father, perhaps for legal reasons, kept both Cs. When people mangled his name, he accepted their apologies graciously. He’d joke, “You can call me anything you please, just don’t call me late for supper!” On St. Patrick’s Day, he’d introduce himself as Mr. Patrick Kelly and wore a button that said, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” There were opportunities for him to move up and move on, but he always hesitated leaving Iowa. I never understood his stalwart emotions for a place that I had difficulty calling home. I grew accustomed to strained and anxious looks when someone from my hometown tried to pronounce my name. “Pet-roo-chell-lee,” I’d sound it out for them. Slowly. Usually they’d ask me to repeat it and perhaps ask, “Is that Eye-talian or something else?” Desperate to leave Iowa, my way out was graduate school back East, where Iowa washed off as easily as watercolors, or so I thought. That’s when I began to experiment with altering my name. Inside every textbook, I scrawled, Ex Libris L. S. Petrucelli. When I started dating a guy who graduated from Brown, at the bottom of the silly cards we exchanged as lovers, I signed myself as Lynda.


7. A celebrity The man I fall in love with is named after the movie star Gary Cooper. "We go together for a year or so, dancing around the possibilities of a shared future, but never come right out and discuss it until one night after I had cooked us roast chicken and ratatouille, he gives me a baseball card from his beloved collection. The keeper, carrying the slight scent of bubble gum, shows a Red Sox third baseman, his bat flung over his shoulder in a triumphant swing. The card reads: “Petroccelli Socks two Homers!” After we are married, he insists I keep my maiden name and forever remain Petrucelli.

8. Widely known: house _____ name I lived in Taiwan as a resident alien for nine years during the 1980s and early 90s. At the time, the Republic of China required all aliens to be assigned Chinese names that they must assume while living on the island. One of my colleagues, Ching-fen, christened me with my second name. He presented my new moniker written in elegant calligraphy on a piece of rice paper. At first sight, the three characters drawn in bold brush strokes standing in a vertical line were glorious. I felt like I was verging on some new, yet to be discovered destiny. “It’s beautiful,” I told him. “How do you pronounce it?” “Very easy to say in Mandarin,” and he pointed to each character as he said it out loud, “Bai Lian-da.” “Repeat, please,” I asked, a strange familiarity dawning. The last two syllables to my ear, sounded no different than what I had been named by my parents. It was a stunning discovery. No matter how far I traveled, I’d always be Linda from Iowa.

9. The study of names Years later I’d finally settle in my version of the Promised Land, Hawaii. I quickly learned that the Hawaiian alphabet, just 13 letters, could produce names of astonishing length, like the iconic name of the state fish—Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. Here, the roles were reversed and it was me who had trouble with pronunciation. A few years after 9-11, I was standing in line at the DMV. My driver’s license was about to expire and I had brought my birth certificate as a second form of ID. The agent scanned my documents, looked up at me and then back down at my driver’s license. Then she frowned. “There’s a problem with your identification,” and she asked me to step aside. Another agent came out from the back and explained that under new federal laws, she was pulling my driver’s license because my names weren’t a match. “Let me guess,” I told her, “the name on my birth certificate has two C’s.” Not long after this incident, I considered my options. I could begin using my double C name—and I would have to change my social security card, credit cards and driver’s license, or I could officially change the name on my birth certificate. I called a lawyer in Kona who told me he’d charge a thousand dollars, but if I went on the state’s website, he was sure I could figure it out on my own. To legally change your name in Hawaii requires the applicant to fill out a form, pay some fees, publish the name change in the Star-Advertiser and register with the Bureau of Conveyance—a government department whose function I’m still not clear about. It took me about two months to officially go single-C.

10. Stolen name: identity _____ I am at the Hilo police station sitting across from Officer Nakamura. He is hunched over a clipboard and writing copious notes. He’s identified the woman who has stolen my credit card and used it to unlawfully purchase one thousand dollar’s worth of designer jeans, high heels and baby toys. He shows me a receipt. At the bottom, I see that halfway through the signature, she has forgotten how to spell my name and the scribbled letters have turned into a centipede scampering across the line.

11. Spelled and pronounced the same, but with different meanings A recent article contends that one baby name from the early 50s rules them all. I am shocked to read that it is Linda. And that Linda’s close contender, is Susan. At a standardized stainless steel Starbuck’s on the Big Island, the barista stands with a steaming grande and calls out “Linda.” I walk to the counter along with another woman with wizened grey hair like mine. For just a split second, I feel like something important about me has been violated and I smile at the other Linda as we try to straighten out our drink orders. White stenciled snowflakes on the outside of my holiday paper cup remind me, no two are alike.


The Name Puzzle
Linda Petrucelli

For most of her adult life, Linda Petrucelli has lived on islands—Taiwan, Manhattan and Hawaii. Being surrounded by water suits her. Her story, Figure Eight on the Waves, won first place in the WOW! Women on Writing Fall 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. Her fiction and personal essays have appeared in KYSO Flash, Flash Fiction Magazine, HerStry, and Sky Island Journal, among others. Linda writes from her tin-roofed ranch house on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. She posts her flash fiction at

the name puzzle


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page