A few days after my birth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, my parents drove 27 miles south and east to Grady, the town where Mama grew up in the Mississippi Delta. I weighed 8 pounds and 6 ounces and was 21 inches long, tall for a newborn back in 1966. Mama pulled the sheet back and presented me to her mother, Madea: Most women have a pretty baby, but girl you sho have brought home an ugly ass child. Madea said, He looks like a little Thimble, doesn’t he?
With those few utterances, I was transformed from Samuel Anthony Autman Jr., into “Thimble,” a moniker that resonated as I grew to 6-feet-4 inches and 235 pounds.
After seeing a picture of the girlfriend Uncle Eddie had met while serving in Korea during the war, Mama found her name, Chung, irresistible. Two years later, my sister, Chung Syrethia, was born. A few months later, Aunt Freddie Mae, my mother’s oldest sister surprised everybody and named her daughter Chung Denise. Two Chungs in a black family, neither of whom has a drop of Asian blood.
For generations, the women in our family have been sampling , creating, and borrowing names from wherever they choose. Unless they’re naming a son Jr., the men tend to stay out of the naming business. They’re three Freddie Maes and two sets of Whitneys, Brittanys and Bernices in the family tree. My maternal great-grandmothers were Everlina Lately and Lilah Gray, known respectively as Mama Lately and Mama Lilah. I had to look on Great Aunt Toad’s obituary before discovering her name was Ernestine. I never knew my Great Aunt Booker’s real name. But she got her revenge by naming her daughters Tiny and Niecey.
Madea is the biggest culprit and sometimes a victim of this name-twisting. She’s one of the two Bernices in the family. Her husband Roy, a 93-year-old man, calls her “Old Girl,” or “Yo Mama.” At 90, many of her friends have died. The remaining ones call her Shug or Ms. Shug as in sugar. She named two of her sons, Arvan and LeVaughn. Arvan became Van and married a woman by the name of Nearlean. Madea decided that LeVaughn would be known as “Tanna” or “Tan.” Madea named my mother Elizabeth, which quickly became Lizabeth and Lizbeth. Mama’s youngest sister is Verla.
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