Great-gramps was a 'pumkin'
By Anthony Buccino
My uncle was listed as Frank Pumking Cocozza,
In the Florida room of Uncle Bim's home in Florida, I finally asked him how he came to be called "Bim." After all, my research had shown that his real name was Donato which he had Americanized to Daniel. But everybody called him "Uncle Bim" for 80 years. Why?
He sipped dark red wine from his tumbler and smiled.
"I was the next-to-youngest in the family of nine kids. Whenever my older brothers came in from work, they cave me a penny or a nickel. So I always had money. It was just like the character in the funny papers. He was called Uncle Bim. "
So, because I was just like the guy in the funny papers, I always had money, my brothers started calling me Uncle Bim, too."
Were we not related, I, like everyone who knew him would have called him Uncle Bim.
The Eighth Ward Building and Load Association book Uncle Bim gave me detailed his dad's efforts at paying a mortgage from July 1917 to August 1928. The frayed and yellow pages show the monthly ink entries. With so many children to clothe and feed, it must have been a chore to meet the monthly nut of $13.50 to pay for the home on North 11th Street in Newark.
In May 1920, there was no payment recorded. The following month showed an entry of $27.68, which included a penalty for the missing payment. The next missing payments were for April and December 1923, with a double payment shown in each of the next months. The last time my great-grandfather missed a mortgage payment was in October 1926.
My great-grandfather Frank Cocozza married Mary Gentille in St. John Church, Orange, on Jan. 24, 1889. He was a contractor and a laborer. He dug ditches and worked hard to fill the bellies of his nine children who were born from 1891 to 1913.
In July 1914, their third son, Frank, also, filed for working papers following his 14th birthday. He got a record from the Office of the Board of Health in Orange, then had an affidavit of age completed. It is on these papers that another curious family tale emerges.
My uncle was listed as Frank Pumking Cocozza. and on these same official papers, my great-grandfather was called Frank Pumking Cocozza.
I had heard of peasants who named their children for characters in famous Italian operas. And of other families who had named their first born children after the grandparents leaving many first cousins with the exact same names. Although it should have, these common names never seemed to cause confusion at large family gatherings.
But there was no quick or obvious answer as to why my great-grandfather and grand-uncle had what seemed to me, nearly 100 years later, a very silly middle name. I couldn't believe my great-grandfather was called Pumking. It sounded just like people would call him pumpkin. But where? How did this come about?
Cousin George came to mind. If anyone could unlock the mystery of the Pumking, it would be Cousin Georgie. He was a few years older than me and had gone through his whole life with people who called his father Lou. My Uncle Lou's real name was, are you ready?, George. How they got from George to Lou is likely another story. In fact, Cousin Georgie is not his real name. It is, of course, Lou.
"I got a call a while back from the PBS people," he said. "They wanted to know if we were related to Mario Lanza."
Oh, that makes a lot of sense, I said, meaning that it made no sense.
"No, Mario Lanza wasn't his real name, he took his mother's name because he didn't think he could go far as a Cocozza. You know why, don't you?"
"He didn't want to be known as the 'singing squash.' That's what 'cocozza' is, in Italian, a squash or a pumpkin. Remember when Ria married Ralphie?"
I was afraid the wedding was not something I remembered.
"She went from a Cocozza to a Cetrulo, get it?"
Not at all, Georgie.
"She went from a pumpkin to a squash! Get it now? She went from one vegetable to another? From a pumpkin to a squash! It's funny in Italian."
That nearly explains why my great-grandfather was named Pumking. It was likely, Georgie explained, that when they showed up to fill out the official papers, the clerk didn't understand what a Cocozza was, so grandpa probably said, "Francesco Cocozza. Cocozza. Pumking, Francesco Pumking Cocozza" over and over until it was time to put an "x" next to his name on the official paper.
Great gramps made the point that his son getting his working papers on July 2, 1914, had the same name. For which Uncle Frank never mentioned to anyone outside of the family. And I suppose for good reason. A middle name like that, you might want to squash, so to speak.
Adapted from RAMBLING ROUND Inside and Outside at the Same Time
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino published nineteen books. His stories of the 1960s earned a 2011 Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism award. His transit writing on NJ.com earned a 2010 SPJ Excellence in Journalism award and two 2014 SPJ Excellence in Journalism awards. The Pushcart Prize-nominated writer has been called ' “New Jersey’s ‘Garrison Keillor” or something to that effect.’
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