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Call Me Gigi or Mimi But Not Grandma

Even though I do know that being a grandparent is a blessing any way you slice it.

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"World's best Grandma" mug with the word "Grandma" crossed out
Photo Illustration by Chris O'Riley (Getty Images)
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I am only 42 — though always thinking ahead. So when my oldest child, 17-year-old Molly, asked me what I want my grandkids to call me, I was taken aback. I stared blankly, perhaps overcome with panic.

Grandma? Who, me? Um … This is not something I’m in any way ready for. Can we please just change the topic?

I was not focusing on the joys of holding my offspring’s offspring in my arms or the sweet smell of an infant that might leave me giddy with excitement. I was thinking of the outdated stereotype (of course, no longer true as women are living longer and more vibrant than ever): wrinkles and housecoats and curlers and a blurred memory to match.

Grandmotherhood? No thank you, Molly. I am good. 

Yet Molly’s question lingered. Would I ever feel ready to be a grandma, and if so, what would I want my grandkids to call me? What are the options? How do these nicknames develop? Am I the only one who associates the word grandma (and I guess the role of it, too) with being old and perhaps a bit feeble? I reached out to a few ageless grandmothers and asked them just how they decided on the name they wanted to be called.

In her late 70s, Maryland visual artist Gail Watkins says age didn’t play a factor in her choice. “I never gave much thought to whether Grandma sounded too old; I just knew I needed to be called something that felt good.” Watkins has five grandchildren, ages 8 to 21. “They call me Gigi,” she adds, a name she describes as “an upper – it gives me a kick. I also thought I’d better pick my own name before I got labeled with something I didn’t like.” Watkins was, however, labeled with a nickname for her nickname when at age 2, her granddaughter Hannah went down a water slide and yelled “Yo, Geege!” illustrating that sometimes the choice might not entirely be our own. Fortunately, she’s happy to embrace both Gigi and Geege. 

Publicist Marla White, 57, of Fontana, California, is a grandmother to two girls, one almost 2 and the other 13. White admits that the name Grandma did, indeed, make her feel just a little too old. “I was a young mom and subsequently a young grandma,” she recalls. “So, we went with Glama. I have always loved Goldie Hawn and that’s what she was called.” White even has a license plate and a bracelet that proudly display the Goldie-inspired name.

Then there is my own mother, retired teacher Nan Hayes, 72, and grandmother to seven, who has always been known to have strong opinions. She is openly puzzled why Grandma and Grandpa aren’t good enough anymore.

“For hundreds of years Grandma and Grandpa were the traditional terms for grandparents,” she says. “Those monikers were proudly used by grandparents all over America. So when and why did that valued tradition change? Did the image of gray hair and rocking chairs make younger grandparents cringe? Did they, therefore, suggest to their children that they wanted to be called Mimi or Grampy? Do people just want to be different?”

Not surprisingly, my mom established that her own children call both of our grandmothers by the traditional Grandma. And I did feel the traditional name fit them both. My grandmas were strong female role models who made mothering and grandmothering look easy and fun. I picture them hand-whipping mashed potatoes for a table of 12, putting a dollar in the birthday cards to each and every grandchild (over 60 combined), and never failing to tell me I look better with my hair off of my face.

Interestingly, my mother did not follow in this Grandma tradition about which she felt strongly. Rather, she ended up being called Nan, a short version of her first name Nancy. It suits her very well. But what’s in a name, anyway? Grandmas, like all humans, come in all shapes and sizes. They can be fit and active and youthful and daring. They can have gray hair or brown hair — and pink highlights if they choose. Grandmas can be bold and loud and run a marathon or do hot yoga. They can dance barefoot in the grass or in high heels in their kitchen.

The only thing we know about all grandmothers is that they have grandchildren. And that is a blessing any way you slice it — and it’s one that every Grandma or Gigi or Mimi should cherish wholeheartedly, with an awareness that this passage in life is, indeed, one of life’s greatest miracles.

White says it best: “There’s nothing like it in the world. Remember how your heart burst when you first met your child? Multiply that times 1,000 and that’s what being a grandmother is all about. It may be a surprise; it may make you feel old. But trust me, it will make you feel a love bigger than anything you ever felt before — and that’s ageless.”  

Suzanne E. Hayes is a freelance writer who resides in Simsbury, Connecticut, with her three children. Her work has appeared in Working Mother magazine, Woman's World magazine, Kveller, Guideposts magazine, Under the Gum Tree literary arts magazine and more. shayes613@outlook.com

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