Normandy or Normandia?
That is the question

My name is Priscilla Normandy Greenwood . . . or is it? I am proud to use Normandy as my middle name because it honors my father. My paternal grandparents spelled it Normandia, as did theirs before them, all the way back to the 1200s, that I know of. Growing up, I didn't know that many of my relatives spelled their last name differently than I did. I have to admit I didn't even know the real first names of a lot of my cousins until I looked them up when I started working on my family tree. Many of my boy cousins I only knew as multiples of Sonny, Buddy, and Junior. Among the girl cousins were nicknames like Baby, Sugar, LouLou, and Pygie. 

Italian naming conventions were strict back then, though there were rebels who named their children after famous tenors or saints. A firstborn son was expected to be named after his father's father. That made for a lot of boy babies named Michael in my family. Grandpa Normandia, the immigrant of my line,
was baptized Michele Antonio when he was born in Palma Campania, in the province of Napoli, Italy, in 1868. He was not the first son, so he did not have to be named after his paternal grandfather, Sebastiano Michelangelo, who was born in 1830.

This old photo looks like it was taken
in the old West, but it was taken in Brooklyn, New York
around 1905. Grandma Giovannina
Tuorto Normandia is standing next to my father,
Sebastian Sylvester. The man behind him is my
Grandpa Michael Normandia, and the young
boy is their son Antonio.

Grandpa Michael's first son was my father, Sebastiano Sylvester Angelo Normandia, named according to custom after Grandpa's father.  My father's first son was named Michael, after grandpa. I called him Buddy because there were already first grandsons named Michael. Buddy's only son is Michael and Michael's first son is my grandnephew, Michael. And so the Michael dynasty started over again.

At the time my great-grandfather Sebastiano Michelangelo was born, Palma was in the District of Nola, in Terra di Lavoro, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. There was no Italy, yet. Italy was all city-states back then. Italian Unification, also known as
Risorgimento, didn't happen until 1861. I don't know whether or not the middle name, Michelangelo, was to honor the painter of the magnificent ceiling frescoes of the papal Sistine Chapel in Rome, as well as the sculptor of the most famous marble statue in Florence and perhaps all the world, Michelangelo's David. Since those works of art were created at the beginning of the 1500s, I'm inclined to think my great-grandfather's middle name was to honor the Archangel Michael. I've found legal documents where the name was divided, Michel Angelo.

One day, after I became my family's genealogist, I looked at some old birth and baptism certificates. My last name was spelled Normandia. I checked out my father's certificates, my siblings papers, and mine. They are all spelled Normandia. As I got deeper into genealogy, I found my father's surname spelled in a variety of different ways on legal documents. He was Normandia, Normandie, Normandi or Normandy.  It seems that spelling conventions were not totally in vogue yet.

I understood why the men named Michele were called Michael when they came to America, but why did Grandpa change the spelling of Normandia?

Grandpa Michael

Well, he didn't! Our family legend said that when my grandfather, Michele (Michael) Antonio Normandia, came to America, he was shocked to see signs in store windows in Manhattan that said, "Italians need not apply."

The huge emigration of Italians to America at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s brought America's newest immigrants to our shores. Italians replaced the Irish, who were previously the newest large group of immigrants to America. The Irish were desperate to relocate after their homeland's potato famine. It was called the Great Famine, or the Great Hunger, a time of mass starvation and emigration that lasted from 1845 to 1852.  About a million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland. America was not their only destination. Many of the desperate poor chose to sail to England, Scotland, South Wales, Australia, and Canada.

In school, we were taught that the Irish Famine was the result of the dietary dependence of the poor tenant farmers on their sole subsistence food, the potato, and primarily on one variety of potato. I recently read that the tenant farmers ate 40 to 60 potatoes a day to keep up their strength, and their only beverage was water. When the potato blight decimated that crop, the poor people starved. I'm not sure why we were not taught the other significant reasons for the Great Famine involving money and greed and discrimination. I could easily get distracted by this subject, but I'll stop here.  If you enjoy reading history, there is much written about the many causes of the Irish emigration.

The Italian emigration was not just to the United States either. I have received emails from Normandia people of Italian ancestry in Australia and Brazil. As they research their family trees, they ask if their Normandia ancestors could be related to mine. I honestly do not know. I hope they were not the victims of discrimination as mine were when they arrived as part of the "New Immigration" in the land where "all men are created equal."

The New Immigration consisted of Italians, Jews, and Slavs. Between 1900 and 1915, three million Italians immigrants entered the United States. They were the largest nationality of the "new immigrants" and took their dishonored place as the latest victims of discrimination in America. I'm ashamed to admit we still do that in America. It doesn't seem to matter where the latest immigrants come from, the last ones to arrive in large numbers become the low men and women on the totem pole in this melting pot we call America. Their children learn English in the schools and their grandchildren consider themselves 100% American, as I do. In a generation or so, their names pop up in the entertainment world, sports, and politics. Sometimes their surnames even appear on the Supreme Court.

Normandia Family

It must have been hard for the first of the Normandia family to reach the United States. In Italy, the  Normandia family included architects and lawyers, musicians and politicians. They were looked up to as pillars of the community and most came over in ships with manifests that were stamped "First Class." It must have been an incomprehensible shock to see those signs in store windows that warned "Italians need not apply." Grandpa Normandia was a painter who specialized in painting cathedrals in Italy. He realized he would have to start his own business in Brooklyn and his Italian name would hinder, rather than help. He decided to call his business Normandy & Sons, Painting and Decorating. He did it legally. People thought it was French, as in Normandy, France, and his business took off.

Here's the most important fact. Grandpa never changed his own surname name from Normandia to Normandy and all his children were baptized as Normandia. His business name of Normandy was the first and only time the "real" spelling of Normandia was legally changed and it was only for the business, not the family.

The deeper I got into researching my family tree, the more I learned that there are numerous branches of my family who never changed their surname and find it strange that we did. They are Normandia. I wish I were. My father was the son in Normandy & Sons, and started writing Normandy as his last name. He, too, never made it legal. By rights, I should be Priscilla Normandia Greenwood. If I weren't 80, I would change it legally. At this age, it would take the rest of my life to change all the legal documents back to Normandia and I'm not sure I could count on Social Security and Medicare to get it right before I get my wings.

Sometimes when I look back, I notice that not all events that were major influences in the adult I would become had their roots in my personal childhood experiences. Even a family legend, true or not, can be the trigger for a personality trait or belief system in later years. I am thankful I learned a big lesson early on from the often-told story
of my immigrant grandparents.

I am in awe of immigrants from all over the world who have the courage to leave everything they know to seek refuge in our country and start all over. That family legend from my childhood taught me about the dangers of discrimination of any kind. I will never understand how people can be so heartless and discriminate against anyone who is different from them. I believe the world will be a better place when we build bridges instead of walls.

I'm getting off my soapbox now that may have been triggered by this week's 24/7 coverage of the unthinkable massacre in Orlando, Florida. It was caused by a shooter who was born in Queens, New York, a safe and friendly place when I attended Grover Cleveland High School there.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.