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From MeeMaw to PawPaw, Grandparents Have Many Name Options

Happy belated Grandparents’ Day to those of you who are grandmothers and grandfathers. I learned of this event by accident while shopping where I saw balloons adorned with Grandma, Grandpa, Papa and Nana. Apparently, Grandparents’ Day was Sunday. How did I not know this?

I’ve since learned that in 1978 – the year I was pregnant with my first child – President Jimmy Carter declared the first Grandparents’ Day, something that’s always celebrated on the first Sunday after Labor Day.

Who knew? Not I.

In fact, nobody I know celebrates Grandparents’ Day. It’s just never caught on. And no wonder, because it’s redundant. If you’re a grandparent, then you’re already a mother or a father, which means you’ve ostensibly celebrated already on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so Grandparents’ Day is kind of superfluous.

Want to take a guess at Grandparents’ Day’s official flower? The forget-me-not, the perfect choice. It’s a flower, plus a guilt-inducing message, all in one.

Setting aside the mostly unrecognized Grandparents’ Day, there’s the issue of a grandparent’s name, which is far more important than getting a Mylar balloon from the unSafeway.  I immediately noticed when looking at the Grandparents’ Day balloons that there were only four grandparent name choices: Grandpa, Grandma, Papa and Nana. How limiting!
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It’s like my childhood days all over again, of coming up empty-handed while trying to find personalized pencils or personalized Schwinn licence plates. The closest I ever got to my name was “Donna” – which is a perfectly wonderful name, if that’s your name.

That’s OK. When it comes to my grandparent name, I like the individuality of mine – Noni – just fine. I planned it years before my children had children, after a friend gave me some serious advice: Choose your grandparent name early, before someone chooses it for you.

She said the days of all grandparents being called Grandpa and Grandma were over, that there were myriad grandparent names, and some are a better fit than others. She said it’s best to not leave it up to chance, or worse yet, to toddlers. That’s what happened to friend Dan, whose first grandchild couldn’t say Grandpa, but he could say CaCa, so that’s what stuck for not just that child, but all the subsequent grandchildren to infinity and beyond in Dan’s family. Dan, quiet, reserved and proper, is the least ca-ca like person I know, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the name he’s got.

But back to my friend, who shared how she’d grown up with two grandmothers, and, early on, to keep them straight, the grandchildren took a practical stance and called the hefty grandmother Big Grandma and the diminutive grandmother Little Grandma.

My friend quickly sized things up when she met her son’s fiancee’s family for the first time, including her son’s future mother-in-law, a tiny creature.

“There was no way, when they started having kids, that I was going to be called Big Grandma,” my friend recalled.

Behold, Nana was born, a name that suits my friend well, but best of all, she likes it.

I remember my own father, who was barely comfortable with the title of Dad, let alone Grandpa, so a few years into his grandfather stint he requested my little kids switch from his previous title of Grandpa, to Oompa. It was too late by then. The kids knew him as Grandpa, and that was that. Grandpa stuck.

My twin is a Grandma, as is friend Canda. Friends Pat, Judy and Cindy are respectively, Mimi, Nonni and Gran.

My two Cottonwood grandchildren have a slew of grandparents, thanks to blended and extended families: one Grammy, two great-grandmas, one Nana, one Gigi and one Noni — that’s me. They have a Papa, and they had a Grand dad and a Grandpa. Poor kids. I don’t know how they keep us all straight.

I lucked out with Noni, which I made up. It’s a derivative of Nonni, because I’m a wanna-be Italian. But my Noni name is not pronounced the Italian way, with a long “o”, but rather, it rhymes with my name, Doni.

No offense to all the Grannys out there, but I knew for sure I didn’t want to be one, because it conjured up images of Ma Clampet; some old gal with a gray bun, a shotgun, and, of course, granny glasses.

Ma Clampet, also known as Granny, played by Irene-Noblette.

But Granny is exactly the name one of my children threatened to have her offspring call me as a punishment if she gave birth to identical twins, as if that would be my fault, just because I happen to be an identical twin.

Identical twins Doni, left, and Shelly, play tea party as they celebrate having their bangs cut.

… And just because my father’s family is riddled with identical twins.

This Chamberlain family portrait from the early 1900s shows multiple sets of twins, including Doni’s grandfather Chamberlain, one of the twin boys wearing a dark tie and a light-colored shirt.

So far, no twin grandbabies, so I’m still Noni, the only name my grandchildren know to call me, to the point where they look confused and wrinkle their noses if someone mistakenly refers to me as their grandmother.

She’s not our grandmother! She’s our Noni!

Be still my heart.

Yes, there was a time when all American grandmothers were simply called grandma or grandmother, and grandfathers were simply called grandpa or grandfather. And in previous generations, the most extravagant titles that departed from the standard Grandma and Grandpa were strictly for clarification: Grandma and Grandpa Smith, or Grandma and Grandpa Jones, for example.

Blame his naming game on us Baby Boomers, dis-satisfied with the grandparently status quo, because we shun old age, including old-timey titles. Even so, it’s mainly we grandmothers who’ve really embraced this second chance for a shot at a new name, helped along by more options. (See Mimi, Gigi, Nana, Nonni, above.) Granted, there are also names that few grandmothers would want, such as Mee Maw, but to each her own.

Pity the guys, because there aren’t many options after Grandpa or Grandfather, other than Papa, or PawPaw.

Times have changed, and so have grandparents’ names. If you or someone you love has grandparenthood in your future, you get one shot to pick a name and stick with it. Choose early and choose wisely. Or end up being called MeeMaw and CaCa. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

That’s my belated Grandparents’ Day gift to you. You’re welcome.


Noni Doni