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What Do You Call Grandma?

A Special Note from Kathleen to all Grandmothers

My daughter asked me that question when she was pregnant with my first grandchild.

“Grandma, of course” I answered, following tradition rather the giving it the thought it deserved.


My own grandmothers were always “Grandma”, with the last name added if we were talking about them in their absence and wanted to specify which grandmother. In those days, for me, not only were grandmothers always grandma, but mother and father were always Mom and Dad, cousins were Cuz, siblings were brother or sister.


But times have changed. Many modern children call their parents by their first name (parents like this, I think this relates to anti-authoritariansim) and many people call their friends and associates “Bro” or “sis”. I am among those who likes this, a state senator who I knew long before he was a candidate calls me sister, and that makes me feel included in his inner circle (which I am not!).


Was my answer to my daughter’s question thoughtless, automatic, a throw-back? Was I was stuck in the past instead of appreciating her sensitivity?


Now that is think of it, many grandparents do not want to be called grandma or grandpa. My own husband, who became a father at ages 40, 42, 48, and 54, took pleasure in his virility whenever he corrected someone who asked if the baby was his grandchild.


Is that why many grandmothers keep their given name, perhaps as the nickname used by their first grandchild. Lorna becomes Loli, Susan becomes Susu, Mary becomes Mama. This last one is not advised by experts, who do not want grandma’s name to echo the one for mother. Mom-mom, Mammy, Mamow, and even Meme are frowned upon. This is not because of the children or the grandmothers, but because of the mothers, who are ready to resent grandmothers’ infringing on her authority as well as her name.


I know a child who grew up living with her grandmother, not her biological mother. She called her grandmother “mommy”. The grandmother not only allowed it, she loved it, in part because she believed that mothers should raise her own children. Since that did not happen in this case, she believed that she deserved the name, the credit, as well as the role of mother. Now that child is a young woman; she defiantly calls her grandmother “Mom,” and the mother resents it.


Another direction chosen by some grandmothers is to use an ethic label. Grandmothers become “Oma”, (Dutch), or “Bubbe”(Israeli), or Lita (Spanish, short for Abelita), or Ama (Chinese). These labels remind everyone that the child has an ethnic heritage, a heritage that might be ignored if the grandmother did not insist on preparing ethnic foods, celebrating ethnic holidays, and using an ethnic name.


Babies find it easiest to babble words composed of a consonant and vowel, ideally with a simple sound said twice. That’s why the first toilet-training words are wee-wee, kaka, and so on. That also explains Nana, one of the most common words for grandmother. “Na” is one of the first sounds babies babble. (Mama, papa, and Dada are also among those first sounds, but all of them are already taken by parents who rightly want to avoid being called by a name that is impossible for a young child to pronounce. Father is hard to say, even for 5-year-olds). So many grandmother’s prefer Nana, now made famous in Anna Quinlen's book on Nanaville.


Ease of pronunciation has much to commend it, evident in many English words (Bunny for rabbit, tummy for stomach, kitty for cat). But “nana” is also “banana”, the first food spooned into an infant mouth. I guess there is something commendable for sharing a name with something easy to mash and digest. Should I have chosen that instead of grandma?


Recently many American grandmothers are “Glamma”, a name first chosen by Goldie Hawn, who associated “grandma” with senility, arthritis, and dumpiness. She wanted to be seen as glamorous, and glamma evoked her polished nails, agile movements, and slender shape. Goldie was not alone: there are now glamma mugs, shirts, postcards, bibs. (check Amazon!). I sympathize with the wish to oppose the wrinkled grandmother stereotype, but I don’t want Glamma, because I don’t want anyone to suggest botox!


Now that I have given it some thought, I am happy to be grandma.


My grandson was in the subway station, in my sight but about 50 feet away, when an older woman wondered if he was lost. She then saw that my eyes were focused on him and asked “Is that your mother?” He corrected her: “that’s not my mother, that's my grandma”.


That made me proud.

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