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.
“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.
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.