Grandmas, Abuelitos, Sabas and Nanas: On Grandparents’ Day

Will you be called Grandma, Granny, Grandpa, Gramps, Granddad, Papa or Nana? Will you be Bubba, Abuelito, Abuelita, Safta or Saba or Grandmama? Or Biggy or PeaPa or another unique name because that’s what they can pronounce? It’s an exciting time when the first grandchild appears in this world and the family negotiates which grandparent will carry which name.

Of my four grandparents, three of them never knew their (would-be) grandchildren and received their unique tags for the honor and thrill of becoming a grandparent (or lived long enough to see their married, for that matter). When my mother and father talk of them, they say “my father” or “my mother,” not Grandpa Louis or Grandma Ida, or Bubba or Bubbe, the endearing Yiddish names many Jewish grandparents who came over to America from Europe wear so proudly. I tried making up names for them, to create a personal connection, but it rang false: The name, or title, is an organic living thing, and represents a relationship.

My mother’s mother, who received the honorific Granny, was the only grandparent I knew, the only grandparent who was alive in my lifetime. I remember the smell of Granny’s fresh sausage permeating her apartment (and my nasal passages), and it was because of her that I discovered snoring when, at a young age, I shared my bed with her when she stayed overnight with us. But I can’t say I had much connection to her, and it wasn’t just because of the snoring. She had the coveted title, but Granny didn’t reach out much to me. I would have loved it if she had. But that wasn’t her.

Ida, my paternal grandmother, is the one I feel the deepest connection to. But that didn’t happen until well into my adulthood when I wanted to know more about her – and her life – than how she had died and to whom to assign blame. I sought out her grave, and discovered her given name wasn’t Ida at all! Like many of her generation, her European name Chana Henye bore testimony to both the Hebrew and the Yiddish, but gave way to a new name upon reaching The New World. Chana Henye was lost for close to a century among the climbing ivy until somebody, me, came along and translated the etched Hebrew script on her memorial stone. I tried for years through various distant and not-so-distant relatives, but could not locate even one photo of Ida (or Chana Henya) at any age. The closest I came was a photo of her sister as a young married woman and which I have prominently displayed in my office. My father isn’t sure if his mother physically resembled her sister, and the few times I spent with her sister (and my great aunt) I was too young to appreciate that one day I would wish I had asked her my question, “What was my grandmother like?” when I had had the chance.

Do I have any reason for feeling the strongest kinship to this grandparent who I never knew, who barely had a chance to know her own three children who were all under the age of 14 when she passed from this world? Maybe it’s the soft melodic sound of her name, or that it was she who my parents thought of when I was named. Why do parents name their children after their own parents? Maybe it’s their way of holding on, or of honoring. Sometimes, the name embodies the hope that their parents’ positive attributes will be handed down to their own children. Ida, in casting off her old world name, may have been trying to create something new while I, in reaching back to her generation, am trying to grasp, understand, and hold on to the beautiful things about my ancestors, their lives, personalities and values… In life there is ample room – and need – for the best of both the tried and the true, and the new and daring.

When my husband’s and my grand-kids come over to our home, their faces smeared against the lowest of the vertical glass panels by our front door like creamed cheese – their little mouths upturned into huge smiles, waiting for us to open the front door and let them in, we get an immediate thrill. They are eager to visit Grandpa and Nana! Once inside, after the kisses, still wearing their smiles they go straight to the attic to fetch the bags of stuffed animals, then right to the bookshelf to fetch the toy cars we have. Soon our living room becomes the setting for an animal fantasy – an apiary, aquarium, and menagerie all at once. Then the books we have for them come down from the shelves. Our grand-kids – and their joy – can take over our living room any day!

Not all grandparents revel in their grand-kids. My husband remembers his maternal grandfather saying to him and his brother, “Wassa matter mit you”? and yell or turn away.

What is more and more common, with divorce and remarriage so frequent, is having three or more sets of grandparents! And that makes the naming game even more of a challenge!

“Kinship care” is a new expression for an old idea: Sadly, quite a few parents these days are not available, for many reasons, to raise their children, and in many of these cases it’s the parent(s) of these parents who are called on, or available, to do that task. Substance abuse is one of the largest culprits for the rise in “kinship care.”  The proportion of these grandparents (or aunts and uncles) raising the children of their children is on the rise, too. These grandparents, who have needs of their own and are getting up there in years with their own aches and pains (of the physical and the emotional sort) face legal, emotional and economic challenges as well as they step in to raise their grandchildren usually under difficult circumstances and with little preparation or warning.

Grandpa and I, Nana, are waiting eagerly for the first time we’ll be called upon to babysit our three grand-kids. We don’t expect we will have them in their beds quite at their regular bedtime, we don’t even promise that they’ll fall asleep before we do! But we do promise that it’ll be a night to remember!


10 thoughts on “Grandmas, Abuelitos, Sabas and Nanas: On Grandparents’ Day

  1. “What have you done to my daughter?” asked her Mum, coming in to find my granddaughter asleep on the play mat…and Grandma sitting amongst the evidence of communication between herself and the nine month old snoring beside her. It was messy… but what fun 🙂


    • Thanks, Sally! The second generation of people on this side of the oceanic divide commonly did not know their grandparents, as the young, strong and daring ones came over from Europe to start a new life, and the elders remained. I wonder if that phenomenon was less common in Europe itself.


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