Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Grandma and Grandpa

What did (or do) you call your grandparents? Did you have different names for your maternal grandparents and your paternal ones? Did you have particularly odd or “cute” names for them?

Most people do have different names for the different sets. I called my father’s parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. My mother’s parents were “Nanny” and “Poppy”, and my step-mother’s were “Mom-mom” and “Pop”. It’s convenient that it worked out that way, since all those names had been decided on before I was in the picture.

Actually, what I’ve had trouble with is distinguishing my birth mother from my step mother, at those times when the distinction is significant — usually, it’s not. The term “birth mother” often connotes adoption, which wasn’t the case with me. “Natural mother” sounds a bit odd. I tried “real mother” briefly, but that makes it seem that she who’s been “Mom” to me for the last 40 years is somehow not “real”; nothing could be less true. As I say, I’m happy that I seldom have to make the distinction clear.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who called his mother’s parents “Nana” and “Gomp”, the latter being how he said it as a baby. It seemed funny, at the time, to hear a teenager call his grandfather “Gomp”, but, well, these things stick, don’t they? I’ve also heard a lot of “Grandma Sarah” or “Grandpa Smith” used to make the distinction.

Of course, it’s convenient for the family to know which grandmother you’re talking about, so it’s sensible to have distinct names. But I think the need goes beyond that: we often attach much more to a name, treating it as more than just a label. Small children often have trouble accepting that the person just introduced can really be “Michael”, because Michael is someone else, a friend down the street. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “He doesn’t seem like a ‘Steve’.”

Societies, from ancient to modern ones, have used different names for the same people, reserving particular names for limited use, not to be worn out. Names can be considered unlucky, or be explicitly cursed; there are all sorts of superstitions around names. Don’t say the name of a devil or demon, lest it respond to the call. And, of course, never mention the name of God.

But Shakespeare wrote, in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” And indeed: I’d be the same person as I am now, even if I weren’t called Barry.[1] Superstitions aside, my name hasn’t had any part in shaping my character.

How different cultures treat names is interesting. A Latin-American parent will happily name a boy Jesus (pronounced “hay-soos”), but that’s not done in Anglo culture. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, writer Alexander McCall Smith shows us African culture in Botswana, giving us characters with names like Precious, Happy, and Lucky. We like those names for what they are... but don’t we also hope the character of the name, as a word, will imbue itself on the bearer?

Where did all this come from? Why do we attach such importance to what things in general, and people, in particular, are called?

You can call me anything, except late for supper.

— Saying from rural America

[1] Had I been a girl, my parents had prepared “Barbara” for me.


Catherine said...

Personally, I'd use "bio-Mom" to refer to your first mother and just "Mom" for your step-mother.

Barry Leiba said...

"Bio-Mom" has an interesting ring to it, yes. On the other hand, the fact that "bio" means "organic" (as in "organic foods") in French and German kinda turns me off to it a little. Makes me thing of "health-food Mom".

The Ridger, FCD said...

My paternal grandparents were Nana and Daddee. My Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Fred were Mamaw and Papaw to their grandchildren, who called Nana and Daddee the same thing we did. My maternal grandmother was Mimi, which was actually what a number of her friends called her (her name was Molly)...

Barry Leiba said...

As to "Mimi": I've always wished that more people called parents and grandparents by their actual names. I have one niece, and have never particularly liked the "Uncle" Barry thing, but my brother does, so there it is. I'd rather be just "Barry" to her.

But prepending "Uncle", "Aunt", "Grandma", or "Grandpa" to the person's given name does seem the right balance between familiarity and respect.

patientia said...

I have a biological father and a sociological father. I call my mother and my sociological father by their first names. I don't call my biological father.

Laurie said...

My paternal grandparents were Grandma and Grandpa, while my maternal grandfather was Granddad, and my maternal grandmother is Nanna. My son, being a child of divorce as well as having one set of divorced grandparents, has too many to name independently, so he differentiates using the "Grandma(pa)[first name]" method.

I still call my parents Mummy and Daddy. I really wish things didn't "stick" quite so well, but I'm far too old to change now...

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

My mother's parents were "Grammy" and "Papa" (pronounced "pup-uh") for reasons I never knew (probably rooted in Eastern Europe). But when my first grandkids were born on October 1, and my daughter asked what I wanted to be called, I had no doubt at all. I've no idea where the name came from, but every time I hear her refer to me as Pup-uh, I feel a warmth of connection to my long-gone grandparents (not to mention the chill of knowledge that I won't be far behind).