Laura Lynn Brown

Laura Lynn Brown is the author of Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories. Her writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Slate, Art House America, Cimarron Review, Every Day Poems and elsewhere. She works as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter.

Naming Rights

Several couples in my circle of friends are expectant grandparents now, and the news of the baby to come is generally followed quickly by the discussion of what their grandparent names will be.

Opinions on this have divided along gender lines. The men have thought it silly, perhaps presumptuous, or perhaps just too much work, to choose a name for themselves. They’d rather wait and see what the kid calls them, and then let that stick (though one of the husbands, when he is asked what he would like to be called, always says, with mock gravitas, “Sir”). The women, however, move into this as the first order of business in grandparenting. Their first line of thinking is often reactionary: “I don’t want to be called…” something too old-fashioned, too Southern, too common, too much like a granny in the family she doesn’t want to turn out like. There is also the practical desire to have a unique name, not being called the same as the grandparent-in-laws.

In these discussions, I have bucked gender lines and sided with the men, agreeing to wait, not to be overly assertive. Then one night I got a phone call from my daughter. I’d come out of a meeting, and looked at my phone to find two FaceTime messages, and then a text in her shorthand for “Are you there?” I called.

“You rang?”

“Can you Facetime?” she said.

“Not while driving,” I said. “I could pull over, or I’ll be home in 15 minutes.”

“Wait til you get home,” she said. “We’ll FaceTime or Skype.”

The last time she wanted to Skype was to announce that she and her young man had gotten engaged. She’s about to graduate with a Ph.D. This could be only two things, I thought: baby or job. I was leaning toward baby, and I started crying in the car.

A thought zipped through my mind: You’re going to be a granny.

My mother didn’t live long enough to meet any of her grandchildren, but she had decided that when some came along, she wanted to be called Granny. I think she liked the old-fashionedness of it, and relished the idea of being a youthful, quirky granny, against stereotype. She also loved the name of the Sesame Street character Granny Fanny Nesselrode (whose middle name I had heard and always said as Banny, until Googling her). “Granny Fanny Nesselrode,” she’d say, enjoying its mouthfeel. “Isn’t that a great name?”

Granny Fanny Nesselrode had the stereotypical look: white hair, bun, rimless glasses she peered over, twinkle in her eye (as much as a Muppet is able). But as I recall, she was also spry (that word we use to mean agile + old) and sometimes unexpectedly whimsical in her answers.

My daughter often played dress-up after school, and dressed in costume for whatever drama she was dreaming up that day. One day I received a note penciled, “I will be in disguise, but you will know me.” A tiny old woman appeared, back bent, one of my old skirts dusting the floor at her feet, a purple twirler’s baton playing the role of cane, which she walked unsteadily on. She spoke in a high-pitched, quavery old-lady voice. There was a story line I don’t remember. Then, suddenly, she straightened up, her eyes brightened and the cane became a prop in a song-and-dance routine.

That’s Granny Banny Nesselrode.

I got home, fired up Skype, we connected, we chatted for a moment, and then she said, “Well, we have some news.” And she slid a small black and white picture up into the frame. And there was a small person-shaped lightness in the dark.

There are different ways to announce this news. Fact: My daughter’s pregnant. Focusing on what it means for me: I’m going to be a grandma. Statement of fact that also contains amazement: My daughter is growing a person inside her.

There should be, and maybe there is, a word for the phenomenon of immediately letting go of a firmly held position—like the day she decided bananas were not, after all, “the epitome of nastiness.” So part of my joy at this news is asking friends, what should my grandmother name be?

My coworker who takes every question seriously and analyzes it even more than I do asked what my goal was. “Do you want to hear this child say your grandmother name soon in its verbal abilities? Then you need something simple and repetitive. Mimi. LaLa,” she said.

“Heck, no,” I said. I don’t care about that. And while those names are fine when the kid is wee, they sound babyish coming from anyone older than a toddler. I want something that works throughout the kid’s whole life.

Like nearly everyone, she told me “granny” sounds too old. As if choosing that name will instantly make me wizened and gray-haired. For some, it recalls an image of a hillbilly with a rifle, both in and off her rocker.

She tossed out a few names I don’t remember, and then said, “Brownie. How about Brownie?”

Brownie was my father’s nickname at the industrial bakery where he worked. One of my favorite stories from the bakery is about the time Mr. White, a black co-worker, walked by and greeted him.

“Hey, Brownie.”

“Hey, Whitey.”

And the other guys nearby looked at each other and got nervous, wondering what had just happened, steeling themselves for some rumble that never came outside of their own stomachs.

The other news came 12 days later by phone call. A job offer. Perfect for her in so many ways. We talked about that at great length. Then I asked, “Have you given any thought to my grandmother name?”

“Only that I remember when I was a kid you said you wanted to be granny, and I thought that sounded old,” she said. “That is up to you.”

I told her my until recently held belief about waiting for the kid to say something cute.

“But it’s going to be a while before my baby can talk,” protested Mama (and yes, that is a reference to and quote from the Berenstain Bears books). “I need something to introduce you as.”

We needed a placeholder. I floated Granny by her, and Brownie, and maybe a mashup, a way to honor both of my parents (one long gone, one newly gone): Granny Brownie.

“That sounds like a granny it would be fun to do things with,” she said.

“I’m gonna want to touch your tummy,” I warned her about graduation weekend. “I’m gonna want to talk to it.” She told me the baby is at the developmental stage where it has ears now. Maybe it can hear.

Oh, Baby O, hello in there. You are in disguise but I will know you. This is Granny Brownie. I love you and I like you and I can’t wait to meet you.

 

Toting Time

I’m sitting in an airport in a state I have never set foot in, between flights, between where I live now and where I come from, a bag of time at my feet.

Before this trip, for several years my flying carry-on was a green nylon duffel, a gift for a donation to the Sierra Club. It often got unzipped and examined at security after something looked alarming in the X-ray machine. Early on I learned to remove the hollow metal tube from the bag and place it in the bin with my liquids and gels, where the TSA people could see it was merely a tin whistle. (One time I was asked to play it, and had practiced “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for just such an occasion, but in the moment I choked and went with some reel my hands knew by heart.) Once in Albuquerque, the items that resembled bomb makings turned out to be a travel clock and my reading light, nestled dangerously close in a zipped end pocket. A year later, at the same airport, a suspicious powdered substance turned out to be my souvenir bag of blue cornmeal pancake mix.

This year I’ve taken to flying with a red and black thin canvas bag. In the dozen or more years I’ve had it, it has carried necessities for overnighters and weekends; workout clothes for a gym where I no longer have a membership; swim gear and towels for a pool in a town where I no longer live; shoes; random small items during a move. It has sat, empty and crushed, in the top or bottom of various closets. On this trip, it’s toting odds and ends for a visit with my oldest relative.

My life’s single tangible reward for procrastination.

If this bag were packed with my recurring dreams, it would have many of the common ones: it’s exam day at school and I am unprepared. I am in public wearing my pajamas, or something even more informal. My teeth are loosening as I speak.  Something is chasing me in the dark and I can’t see where I’m going. The bag would also have some recurring dreams that are peculiar to me, one of which has settled into this form: it’s time to leave for a trip, and I’m still packing. Arrayed across my bed are too many bags, more than I can carry alone. None of them have wheels. Too much stuff lies waiting. I’m cramming things in, knowing I won’t need all of them, afraid to be caught without something essential. My ride is outside, ready to leave, motor running.

This particular bag has not appeared in those dreams, but it might as well. It is possibly my life’s single tangible reward for procrastination — specifically, for neglecting to renew a magazine subscription. It was a post-expiration incentive to renew, and the top is embroidered, in three-inch letters, without irony, with the name of the publication: TIME.

And a deadline for writing about this bag coincided with this busy trip. “Do you need more time?” an editor kindly asked. Well, don’t we all? I accepted.

This trip has several purposes, chief among them to help my 89-year-old great-aunt sift stuff from the home where she has tidily lived for most of my middle-aged lifetime. We sweep through several deep closets, culling several boxes’ worth, returning other items in neater order. As we rest, I sweep through the well-ordered closets of her memories, relishing her stories, asking for family history I was too self-centered and ignorant to care about when I lived in the city with her.

“How will you know,” I ask, thinking I am helping, “when it’s time to move?”

“It’s time now,” she says, surprising me. “But there’s just so much to do to get ready.”

During the layover on the return trip, a woman will get off the plane I’m about to get on looking stressed, impatient, rushed, carrying a large shoulder bag that says LOVE.

When I get home, I will ask for another deadline extension, and I will theorize that I can’t finish this until I finish something that my family has commissioned: this aunt’s obituary.

Six months pass. My bag of time has gone to Texas for my daughter’s wedding, to Massachusetts for a writing workshop. My father keeps asking about the obit.

I’m in the homeland again, chiefly to be roadside cheering and support as my brother pedals 100 miles in a fund-raising ride for cancer research, secondarily to visit the aunt and make another dent in her stuff. It turns out I’m there the day she visits a retirement community yet again, this time choosing an apartment and making a deposit. One of the books in my carry-on — books I will have time for only on the airplane — is a book I wore out my first copy of: Harriet the Spy, and not until just before this trip do I realize it is my ur-text in the ever relevant subject I like to call “Writing About People Who Don’t Know They’re Being Written About.”

Last time, I worked relentlessly. This time, when she says she has to take a break, I’m glad to too. That’s when I get to pore over old photos and soak in some of her stories, especially stories of her father, the ancestor I would most like to meet. The subjects of death and funerals come up, and what I’ve been holding spills out.

Dad has been asking about your obit. Let me tell you why I haven’t finished it yet. The last time I was here, you said you hoped to go like your dad did, in your sleep. And I would like to keep you around for a long time. So in my crazy thinking, finishing your obituary is crossing one thing off on your ready-to-go to-do list. So if I don’t write it, you won’t die.

I’ve packed and unpacked and repacked this thing a dozen times, and it still doesn’t feel ready for takeoff.

If time were a tote bag, how much could you fit in it? How much would you pack? What does yours carry?

On the return trip’s layover, I can see the answer for the small blonde-headed girl whose family is waiting for the same plane. Her clear plastic backpack holds Barbie, Ken, and Skipper, crowded against the seams to fit themselves around something that fills the rest of the interior: another, scrunched-up backpack, a tan furry one, the kind that doubles as a stuffed animal giving the wearer a hug.

Here I am, suspended, between where I come from and where I live now, a bag of time at my feet.