"So ... what will you call yourself?" friends wanted to know when my older daughter announced her pregnancy. It was the question on everyone's mind, most often asked with playful curiosity and amusement, though sometimes with a foreshadowing of the answer's importance. My friends understood something about becoming a grandmother that I had never contemplated. I could call myself Bubbe or Oma, Granny or Gammy, Nanny or Nona, names steeped in history and hope, offering possibilities for fashioning a grandmotherly identity. But names, too, that when I tried them on didn't sound like me.
I have never chosen a name for myself. My parents, German immigrants, gave me an American name, Nancy, reflecting their aspirations and hopes for an American child. And without any planning or choosing on my part or theirs, my children have always called me some version of mom. So the idea that I might, for the first time in my life, name myself seems an unsettling responsibility. What I know about grandmothers is less from my own memories as a granddaughter and more from the decades of reading students' essays about their grandmothers.
Here are the things I could tell you about grandmothers from reading my students' essays: Grandmothers never, never disappoint. Essays about parents are often filled with regret and disappointment, abandonment and alienation, but grandmothers are almost mythological, storybook creatures, trusted and treasured, handing down family history while standing at the stove. In reading my students' essays, I marvel at these relationships, knowing I lack the evocative details to write such an essay. From my maternal grandmother, I have sepia photographs of a shy woman whose sudden death from carbon monoxide poisoning, when my mother was seven, is shrouded in sadness and silence. From my father's mother, I have memories of a distant, remote Prussian matriarch, more comfortable playing canasta than feeding her family. We called her Grandmother Sommers, not Oma or Omi, the German names, because she, like everyone else in my family, wanted to put "the past" behind us. On the day she died, a relative came knocking on her apartment door -- not to grieve, but to argue about money. My brother and I were surprised to learn that our grandmother had sisters -- and nieces -- an entire family we had never heard about, relatives who had feuded for decades over money and the ownership of a silly piece of art.
In my students' essays, grandmothers have affectionate names like stuffed animals -- Gammy or Gimmy -- and their mates are called Gumps and Gandy -- and they are usually old, with wisps of gray hair tucked behind spectacles, often with false teeth secretly kept in bathroom cups, but always, always generously kind and forgiving. Essays about happy families, though, don't always make for good writing, so I gently push students, asking them to think against themselves, question their sentimental memories: "Was your grandmother always forgiving?" "Did she do something else besides bake your favorite cookies and pasta?" But when drafts come back unrevised, I have come to understand that Grandmothers are not the venue for critical thinking; they are not meant for doubting. They are nostalgic and solid, almost beyond judgment, intended to live in their kitchens or rocking chairs, bathed in Tuscan light, preserving some sentimental space in memory, a comfortable childhood moment when the world seemed safe and full of love.
And now my granddaughter has arrived, Lailah Dragonfly, a name reflecting her own parents' sensibilities. Grandmother Sommers seems like a big name for a babbling baby to pronounce. I wonder whether all the Gammies and Grannies simplified their names or if their grandchildren landed there on their own, as my brother's grandchildren have, calling their grandparents YoYo and YaYa, comforting repetitive syllables. Lailah is already poetry in motion, the river of life. I can't wait to hear what she calls me.