The exact date and time when my family was turned into a mineral will forever remain unknown. All anyone knows is that it occurred sometime in the early 1900’s, and that my paternal grandfather was to blame.
Born in 1893, Joseph Tvaranaitis emigrated from Lithuania over a century ago. Like the “huddled masses” before and after him, he was most likely processed at Ellis Island. According to my dad, Joseph Senior was a proud man who wanted most of all to fit in as an American. I can well imagine a conversation between him and the customs official reviewing his paperwork.
“Say, that’s a strange name you’ve got there. How do you pronounce it?”
“T-var-a-nitis—just like it sounds.” I can see my grandfather’s face beginning to flush with anger, much like in the old TV series Barney Miller where an exasperated Detective Wojciehowicz (“Wojo”) has to explain once more how to pronounce his name.
“Take it easy, Mr. T-vvvvar-o … or whatever it is. No offense. We get all sorts of names here. And well, some of us aren’t that good at pronouncing them, especially when they’re not English. Now here’s your paperwork. Good luck to you, Mr. T.”
Grumbling, my grandfather now stomps out of the building into his new life. “Tvaranaitis! What’s so hard about that?” he shouts in Lithuanian to the other immigrants rushing to get past him. Then, consumed by the perceived insult to his good name and manhood, he broods all night and who knows how long after.
Alas, there is no record of what exactly happened then. Whether it was a snap judgment, or whether it took him weeks, months, or years to conceive, a bold idea had taken root in his brain: he would change his surname from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite. Unlike the geologic process of mineralization, which usually takes millions of years, in the blink of an eye my grandfather managed to turn all current and future members of our family from being simply Lithuanian-Americans to something that defies linguistic logic and begs the question: “What is that—some kind of mineral?”
I have spent many fruitless, lonely hours trying to unravel the reasoning behind this change. If I could speak to him across that cold void that separates us, I would ask him just one question: Why?
OK, I get the part about the first two letters—“t” and “v.” That does sound kind of awkward. You don’t see a lot of English words starting that way, so right off there’s a problem. People just don’t get it (except for TV, which is an abbreviation). But a “t” and a “v” together at the start of a name? Forget it.
So he decided to change the “v” to a “w.” Here is where the real trouble started. Now it is true that there are many perfectly good English words and names that begin with “tw.” And since the letters “v” and “w” are right next to each other in the alphabet, I can understand why my grandfather might have made the switch. But here’s the problem: in Lithuanian there is no “w.” And just as a piece of petrifying wood slowly loses a part of its original composition as it is replaced by mineral, so did our family name lose one of its parts—the letter “v”—from what was once a bona fide Lithuanian name.
That was bad enough, but it was the last two letters of the new family name that clinched it. For some reason, my grandfather didn’t like the “is” ending. You hear a name ending like that and you think Lithuanian, or maybe Polish, right? For him, maybe that was the rub. It didn’t sound American. So he decided to change the “is” to “ite,” as in Twaronite. Again I have only one question: Why?
The stupefying leap of reasoning behind the jump from Tvaranaitis to Twaronite is one of my life’s great mysteries. It gnaws at my brain in the wee hours before dawn, especially after consuming some unhealthy Lithuanian delicacy.
Growing up with a name like mine was not easy, to say the least. OK, so it’s not exactly polite to make fun of someone’s name, but try telling that to a kid. First, there was the obvious similarity to real minerals: rhyolite, magnetite, pegmatite, or torbernite. Or how about a chondrite meteorite? And let’s not forget that alien mineral kryptonite that deprived Superman of his powers. In my superhero reenactments as a child, I liked to think the magical mineral twaronite was actually the source of all my powers, allowing me to fly through the neighborhood (OK, so I put on a small cape and ran very fast). It is amusing to me today how many supposedly adult people still bring up this mineral reference to my face as if it were some original witty thing they just made up. It is almost enough to make me take up my cape and try flying again.
Then there were the other names by which I was known: Twilight, Termite, and—my favorite—Tomorrow Night. Members of my family undoubtedly have their own favorites, which they had to endure growing up. From early on, each of us had to learn how to creatively deal with these taunts. I’d like to think it helped build character, or in my case the character I became.
But for me growing up, it wasn’t the teasing as much as the strangeness of the name itself. When I was first taught to write my last name, it just didn’t look right. What kind of name is that? I asked my young self. I remember an episode in kindergarten or first grade. Upon being asked to write out my full name, I broke into such uncontrollable sobs that I had to be escorted down to the principal’s office. Whether it was a case of not being able to recall it or whether it was a case of existential angst at being saddled with such a monstrous handle, I cannot say. I do remember how my principal—a kindly woman by the name of Miss Butler—wrote out the whole stupid thing for me in big bold letters on a piece of construction paper, which I had to carry around with me until I could remember how to write it. I think she meant well, and did not anticipate my discomfort or the inevitable snickers from the peanut gallery. Suffice it to say that by grade three I had learned to write my name without the use of any learning aids. And much later, I used the episode in my first novel—a middle grade fantasy about a boy who thinks his own family is so crazy that he writes them out of existence and creates a new one.
It is this sense of strangeness that still trips people up when they first encounter my name. I see the clerk scanning my name on the receipt at the supermarket. Suddenly there’s a look of dire panic on his or her face. “Thank you, Mr……………..I’m sorry, how do you pronounce that? And, depending upon my mood and how long the checkout line is, I will either give them the quick pronunciation or launch into another self-deprecating story about the name being Anglicized Lithuanian and how my grandfather turned the whole family into a mineral. Then I just say, “Mr. T. will do fine,” which usually brings a smile of relief.
The irony is that my grandfather, in trying to blend in and escape what some around him perceived as a strange-sounding name, managed to create one even stranger. But being strange, as I’ve since learned, is not necessarily something to be ashamed or afraid of. Indeed, I like to think that I’ve learned to embrace it.
I’ve also learned that there are some advantages to having a strange name. When I register at a hotel, for example, I have little fear of being mistaken for anyone else in the known universe, unless of course my brother or one of his clan just happens to be checking in at the same exact moment. And when I Google my name, there are no doubles or facsimiles—just the genuine article.
In retrospect, I can now more fully appreciate my grandfather’s genius in creating a unique sobriquet befitting our family and his new life in the Promised Land. I only wish that I could tell my grandfather how truly proud I am of my name—even if it does sound like some kind of mineral—a true Lithuanian-American mineral. © Gene Twaronite 2012