Gray hair, glasses, orthopedic shoes. Vicki Lawrence’s sassy “Mama” character on the old “Carol Burnett Show” comes to mind, as does Irene Ryan as feisty Granny on the “Beverly Hillbillies.” Or maybe you think of Estelle Getty on “The Golden Girls” or stubborn Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Let’s not forget Maggie Smith’s “Downton Abbey” dowager countess. Or even just Queen Elizabeth herself. There’s a rogues’ gallery of grizzly grandmas in the media.
I didn’t see myself as part of that club because while I know that I’m getting older, I’m not ready to give in to being that old lady — the one both our media and society have painted for us.
As AARP noted two years ago, the baby boom has grown into a grandparent boom. Of all adults over 30, more than 1 in 3 were grandparents as of 2014. In 2010, according to the Population Reference Bureau, about 1 in 14 U.S. children (7 percent) lived in a household headed by a grandparent. And, also according to PRB, the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to more than double to more than 98 million by 2060, meaning the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise to nearly 24 percent from 15 percent.
Since the first wave of boomers began hitting 65, this trend has been happening — the trend of don’t-call-me-Grandma. When Babycenter.com asked its parent readers in 2018 what their “grandparental terms of endearment were,” they found that 20 percent of those surveyed had gotten creative with new nicknames, from Abi to Zippy. (Though Grandma and Grandpa remained the most popular nicknames “by a mile,” the site also found.) Right now, at least four friends of mine are preparing to become first-time grandmothers. And none seem to be going with plain old “grandma.”
“It’s important that your Grandmother name defines the unique wonderful grandmother that you are,” says Cathy Caputo Livingstone in her 2012 book, “Bubbe, Mimi and Gigi: The Best Grandmother Name Book Ever.” Goldie Hawn is called “Glam-Ma,” according to her memoir. Susan Sarandon revealed on the “Today” show that she is “Honey” to her grandkids. Martha Stewart told “Access Hollywood” that she is just plain “Martha.”
Traditions make it easy for some. Pop culture icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg is called “Bubbie,” a traditional Yiddish moniker. “Bubbie with whom I spend most High Holy Days. Bubbie who took me to see ‘The Book of Mormon,’ where we both laughed until we cried. Bubbie who loves going to the movies. Bubbie at whom I get a kick out of poking fun. Just a Bubbie like any other,” wrote Ginsburg’s granddaughter Clara Spera in Glamour magazine in May 2018.
But in June 2018, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle noted that Jewish grandparent names were "getting a reboot." One couple wanted to add some international flavor and opted for "Bibi," grandmother in Swahili, and "Z," a shortened version of Zayde. Almost every person quoted in the story was moving away from the traditional names because they sounded "old" and conjured images of babushkas and rolled stockings.
One couple I know is going by Lolly and Pops — Lollipop. Another set of friends recently announced on Facebook that they’ll be Lovey, the name of Thurston Howell III’s wife on “Gilligan’s Island” (Lovie is also a favorite grandmother nickname pick of Southern Living magazine), and Pop.
A neighbor going through the same experience shared, “My nephew told his kids to call my sister ‘Tootsie,’ and it stuck!” She added, “I know a man whose grandkids call him “Chief,” and I do think that’s cute.”
On Findnicknames.com, “Pippa” and “Kitty” are listed as replacements for Grandma — but aren’t those real names? Already taken by real people? That site also suggests “Thatcher” if you’re a tough Grandma and “Glamma” or “Glammy” if you’re more a glamour gal. “Insta-Gram” is suggested if you’re a tech-savvy influencer with grandchildren.
When discussing my dilemma at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one friend suggested I should be called Ann-a-gram, a nice attempt at my first name and some semblance of Gram or Grammy or Grandma. Clever? Yes. But somehow I don’t see that rolling off a tot’s tongue. Another friend suggested Grann, which would encompass Ann, but still be a traditional, easy name. In the end, though, that’s just a spelling issue.
I know I could never be Granny. In addition to not wanting to emulate Ryan’s “Beverly Hillbillies” character, the other day I got an email notice from an elegant blogger, Cindy Hattersley, who often writes about “Over 50” fashion. The subject line of her latest post caught my eye: “Stylish comfortable shoes that don’t look like granny-sneaks.” I appreciated what she was saying about wanting comfortable shoes anyway.
The rest, I realized, was ageism by the blogger, and by me. We were both viewing “granny” — the word, the woman, the concept — as a bad thing. But we should remember that Granny’s character on the “Beverly Hillbillies” was feisty. And that’s a good thing. So are all the other “things” about those “old ladies” — including sass, wit and the ability to confidently carry a purse while being a head of state. For decades.
I’m happy to report that my granddaughter, Audrey, arrived in early June. I’m still not sure what my grandmotherly moniker should be, will be or even what I want it to be. When I held her and she looked at me, suddenly none of it really mattered. She can call me whatever she wants.
Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post, is assistant director of the journalism program at Georgetown University and a member of the first cohort of Georgetown’s Aging & Health master’s degree program.