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A Grandmother by Any Other Name

by Julia Sneden

         Over the river and through the woods,
         To Grandfathers house we go

I never knew either of my grandfathers, but one of lifes better blessings was growing up in a household that included both my grandmothers. There was Grandma, my fathers mother, and Grandabbie, my maternal grandmother. I was the youngest child, so I had no part in the naming of Grandma, who had lived with my parents since shortly after they married. I assume she chose the appellation, and my brother, obedient and verbal child that he was, simply picked it up.

The name Grandabbie, however, was my own invention. Before she came to live with us, my mothers mother lived next door to a lively band of six nieces and nephews who called her Aunt Abbie. By the time I was two or so, I had become enamored of that whole crew, and whatever the glamorous older cousins did, I wanted to do also. One day I joined in a conversation and referred to my Grandmother as Aunt Abbie, whereat several of them pounced on me.

Shes not your aunt, one of them said. You cant call her Aunt Abbie, said another.  I remember feeling crushed, but I dont remember how I came up with the solution of combining Grandmother and Abbie into what was to become her label for life. From that time on, we called her Grandabbie, and so did all our friends and most of our neighbors. Poor Grandabbie: she used to tell me: All my life, I looked forward to being called Grandmother. Its a beautiful word. But then, she would sigh, I hadnt reckoned with you.

Sometimes grandmothers are named before the kids get a chance at it. We continued the tradition of Grandabbies name by referring to my own mother as Grandmary, when our children came along. At first it felt artificial to us, but obviously the kids never questioned it, because shes Grandmary to this day.

Sometimes children themselves come up with their own versions of Grandma. Ive heard: Nana, Nama, Bama, (pronounced Bahma), Meemah, Mammaw, Mimi, Grammy, Granny, and even Gummah. Theres also the Mama Jane type of variation, and even (thank you Tennessee Williams) Big Mama.

Of course there are also names that come from foreign language: from German, Oma; from Spanish, Abuela, or a shortened version like 'buela; from French, Grandmaman or even Meme (pronounced Maymay); from Russian, Babushka or Baba; from Italian, Nona or Nonnie, etc. The Scandanavian countries have probably the most sensible names for grandparents, because in additon to being simple for children to say, they teach the relationship:

     'Farfar' - which translates as : 'father's father'
     'Farmor' - which is 'father's mother'
     'Morfar' - which translates as 'mother's father'
     'Mormor' - which is 'mother's mother'

Then there are the far-out, delightful family names for grandmothers. I remember one of the children I taught, who came dancing in one morning and announced: Today my Grandpa and Sweetie are coming to visit. I wondered if Sweetie might be a dog, or perhaps a new, young wife or girlfriend, but it turned out that Sweetie was what everyone in the family called the grandmother. 

I know of grandmothers called Peaches and Tutu and Buddy and Shug (as in sugar) and Ladybelle. When I was a kid, one of my best friends called her grandmother Skippy. Skippy was a delightful little lady who understood my 12-year-olds passion for Louisa May Alcott, and loaned me her very own copy of Jos Boys.

Sometimes grandparents are in denial of the title, if not of the role itself. My husbands grandfather insisted on being called, simply, Bill. His wife was called Chartie (pronounced Shotty), which was a baby talk reproduction of Charlotte.  The bond between grandparents and grandson couldnt have been stronger, no matter what he called them (or didnt call them). They adored each other.

Sometimes, the use of a first name can avoid a sticky situation. My own children, for instance, called my stepmother Eleanor, as did my brother and I. They didnt seem to feel that she was any less than a grandmother, but I think that not referring to her as grand-something avoided possible resentment within the family. Eleanor herself didnt mind being addressed by her first name at all. As she said, They can call me what they like, as long as they talk to me.

My older granddaughter calls me Grandma Julia, but the younger one calls me just plain Grandma. We didnt even try to continue the family tradition by referring to me as Grandjulia. It seemed an arbitrary and unwieldy moniker. 

Now that the girls have an infant brother, I will be interested to see whether he follows their lead or comes up with a granny name of his own. Whatever it is, you can be sure that Ill answer to it with a great leap of joy in my heart. Being a grandmother is about as good as it gets. But then, I thought that being a mother was pretty swell, too. After all, thats what made being a grandmother possible.

Editor's Note: Our grandchildren calls me Marmu. I thought that taking Marmee, the name from another Louisa May Alcott classic, Little Women, would be a brilliant choice for our grandchild to use. That turned out to be too close to Mommy and she morphed it into Marmu. Now, you can imagine my reaction upon hearing that my son-in-law now associated that name with the killer whale, Shamu. Sigh. 

However, my husband took the name our daughters used for my father, Pop-Pop, as a tribute to his caring ways for his granddaughters and his son-in-law. It thrills me every time she uses that name. My husband's mother was of Norwegian descent and she was called Farmor, which meant father's mother. 

What does your grandchild call you, as grandparents, or what does you child call your parents? Email Julia with these names ... we'd love to hear from you about those variations.


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