“She can call me Ellen.” That’s what my mother told my brother when his daughter — the first grandchild in our family — was born 17 years ago. My mom was in her 50s then and couldn’t bear the thought of being addressed as Grandma, Nana or Bubbe. She was far from a little old lady in a housecoat who lived in Florida and played cards all day. (Worth nothing: The Florida part was accurate, but the bridge-playing didn’t happen for another decade at least.) When my niece started talking, in her adorable toddler syntax, “Ellen” came out as “Mellen” — like the fruit. It stuck. Even the bagger at Publix calls Mom “Mellen” now.
My mother’s grandma name was unconventional and always required a little explanation. But it turns out she was ahead of her time. “The first thing your friends ask you when they hear a grandchild is on the way is, ‘What do you want to be called?’” says my mother-in-law, a Main Line native. It’s true. A quick Google search brings up countless how-to articles for the silver-sneaker set. Are you earnest? There’s “60 Names for Grandparents That Are Super-Sweet.” All about identity politics? Find inspiration in “Our Favorite Southern Grandma Names.” Uninspired? Buzzfeed’s “What Will Your Grandparent Name Be?” quiz is for you.
Never ones to be outdone by their progeny — who wants to be upstaged by little Jasper and Arabella? — today’s matriarchs and patriarchs have stretched the limits of acceptable monikers. A sampling of grandparent names that I unearthed in Philly and beyond: Bo, Wonder, Bomb, Honey, Pretty, Sibi, Bip Bip, Beepa, Marmie, Tri Pops … I could go on. Celebs have gotten into the game, too. Blythe Danner is Lalo, Goldie Hawn is Glam-ma, George W. Bush is Jefe, and Joan Rivers, God bless her, had her grandkids called her “Nana New Face.”
So what’s so awful about Granny? Turns out the rejection of the traditional names has less to do with age denial (after all, these grandparents are beyond psyched to have grandkids) and more to do with a conventional image butting up against self-realization. They don’t see themselves the way they saw their grandparents. They have flair. “I just didn’t feel like ‘Grandma,’” says Lilian, a young progenitor of two who lives in Manayunk. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like one of those, because to my mind, they’re the old ladies who get their hair done every week.” Lilian’s got a point: The grandmas I know have Amazon Prime accounts, take weekly spin classes, and are working well past retirement age. These aren’t the Mimis of yore. “For me, ‘grandma’ just seemed to conjure up images of sensible lace-up black oxfords and doily-covered furniture,” my mother-in-law explains in a text she follows up with a Bitmoji and is probably sent from one of her Grand Canyon hiking trips.
This is the woman who presented her grandparent name to us one night at dinner when I was pregnant with my first child, six years ago. She had thought it all through: Her initials are “MM”; she added a “G” in front to stand for “grandma” and ended up with “Gemma.” We all busted out laughing — what a reach! But guess what? Three grandkids later, she’s 100 percent Gemma. She even signs her texts with two little gem emojis, and I’ve yet to spot one doily in her house.
Published as “Nana Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.