Just about everyone adores having grandchildren. But being called “Grandma" and "Grandpa?” Maybe not for everybody. For many of today’s active grandparents — who feel anything but old and stodgy — the terms Grandma and Grandpa have the decidedly unhip whiff of talcum powder, blue hair rinse and dentures. Even while embracing their grandparent status, the baby boomer generation is coming up with new nicknames for Grandma and names for Grandpa.
Growing up, in my family we called our grandmothers Grandma Rose and Grandma Bessie, to distinguish between the two; our only living grandfather was simply Grandpa. Similarly, my kids called their only set of living grandparents Grandma and Grandpa. While some used terms of endearments like Nona or Bubbe or Oma, for the most part there was little variation among the previous generation — almost everyone we knew used a word that, in some language, meant "grandmother" and "grandfather."
Baby boomers, on the other hand, are not “one size fits all” and are more influenced by one’s culture, religion, traditions, family names, inside jokes and whims. There appears to be more flexibility today in what grandparents are called, according to Ellen J. Klausner, Ph.D. Some are even charting their own paths.
“Many baby boomers have a hard time reconciling their vibrant, vital and active selves with the traditional names — they don’t fit their self-image,” says Dr. Klausner, a clinical psychologist in the New York area who focuses on the psychological issues specific to older adults. “They think of themselves as organizing and running marathons and associate those traditional monikers with a more sedentary lifestyle — the older relative in a rocking chair — that is not their own.”
And because of increased longevity, Dr. Klausner says, there may still be great-grandparents alive. “That, coupled with a greater incidence of step and blended families,” she adds, “means that names have to differentiate between the generations and different extended families.”
To be sure, many still opt for the traditional Grandma and Grandpa (and their close cousins, Grammy, Gramsie, Nana, or Grampy, Papa, Poppy, Pop Pop, and so on). “There are some individuals who cherish memories of grandparents who they felt exceptionally close to,” says Dr. Klausner, “and relish the tradition of transitioning into this new phase of life.”
Anne and Art McGivern chose Grandma and Grandpa for their nine grandkids for this reason. “We loved our grandparents, who were called this, and it’s often a reminder to us of them,” explains Anne. “As we hear those little voices calling out to us, we sometimes think of our grandparents, and the happiness they brought into our lives and hope we are doing the same.”
Some, like Ellen Harmon, give the traditional a little theatrical twist. “I asked to be called Granny with a slightly British accent — ‘Grahhny’ — modeled after Mary’s term for Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey,” she says. “I always thought it sounded lovely and Grandma was just too boring to me.”
Others start out asking to be called Grandma and Grandpa — but their grandkids, in their efforts to pronounce those difficult words, often mangle them to cute effect and come up with new names that end up sticking. Bob Wise wanted to be called Grandpa, but Savannah, his first grandchild, couldn't say that when she started to talk and it came out as Pip, explains his wife Alison (Grammy). “That stuck, and so now that's what we all call him.”
Randi Mogil thought her grandson Kaiden would call her Grandma, but he had other ideas. “I was referred to as Grandma and my kids called me Grandma,” she says, “but Gaga was his interpretation of Grandma and it works for me.” Interestingly enough, Gaga is a not unpopular alternative choice; Diane Levy asked for it. “Grandma sounded too formal and difficult to pronounce in the early years,” she says, “and Gaga sounds good together with Papa, my husband’s name.”
In addition to Gaga, another frequently requested name for grandmothers is Mimi. Both Ann Bowe (married to Pop Bowe) and Lisa Ellis (whose hubby is Papa) are Mimi to their grands. “I was 53 with my first grandchild and I felt I was too young to be called Grandma,” explains Ellis.
Another popular subset of unique names are those that are derived from the (most often) grandmother’s first name. So Gabby McCree is Gigi. “It’s an abbreviation for ‘Grandma Gabby’ and also my initials growing up,” she says. (Her husband, Don, went with Pop Pop.) Lisa Beck is a new, first-time grandmother and is asking to be called Lele, a moniker she made up based on her first name. “It’s more fun than Grandma,” she says. Similarly, Bonnie Metzger is Bon Bon (her husband Jerry is Poppy) and Lois Lust is LoLo to their respective grandchildren. “My mother and maternal grandmother were called by a variation of their first name by their grandchildren,” says Lust, whose husband is Papa. It seemed logical and felt right as a tradition. But even if it were not, I think I would have felt grandma was too stodgy and old fashioned.”
And then there are the monikers that are totally unique. Jeff Brodsky requested is called Jefe (pronounce Heff-ay), Spanish for chief. “My 6th grade Spanish teacher called me that and I always liked it,” he says. (His wife Lori is a Mimi). And after she developed a fascination with an etching depicting the Duchess of Marlborough, Sharon Polan declared that she would be called Duchy by her grandkids. “I was in my 50s when my first grandson was born, and I just didn’t see myself as a granny,” she explains. (Her husband eschewed Duke for Pop Pop.) Suzan Rose similarly saw herself as not old enough to be “the little gray haired lady with the bun.” By request, her three grandkids call her Boo, a shortened version of her invented play name, “Boonita the Sweeta.” Her husband Martin answers to Pops.
And then you have Amy Finklestein. Tommy, her only grandchild, couldn’t say Grandma, a moniker she wasn’t thrilled with anyway. “So when he heard everyone else call me Amy, he just did the same — so Amy it is,” she says. Her husband Howard is Oward. “It’s very cute and funny.”
So far, we only have a granddog, Gypsy. But if my husband and I are ever blessed with non-canine grandchildren, I will probably put a bid in for La La, which, like Gigi and Lele, is a family nickname derived from my first name that has an easy-to-pronounce, two-syllable repeat. As for my husband, he once stumbled across a list of unusual grandparent names that listed Pup Pup — probably a mispronunciation of Pop Pop — that he particularly liked because he’s a veterinarian. So, unless our admittedly brilliant Gypsy starts speaking English soon, we will be waiting patiently to put La La and Pup Pup to good use.
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