Tuesday 20 March 2018

Grandparents: Young at heart

No longer grey and sitting in the corner, grandparents aren't what they used to be -- and some are even saying, 'Call me anything, just don't dare call me 'granny'

Rita de Brun

Although his name was Paddy, my dad was called 'Arthur' by his grandkids. It came about when he dubbed himself 'Arthuritis' due to the rheumatoid arthritis which tormented him on a daily basis. His self-effacing humour struck a chord. 'Arthuritis' was shortened to 'Arthur' and it stuck.

His laid-back approach is at odds with a Cork-based grandmother I know, who soon discovered the folly of suggesting that her grandkids call her by the hideously pretentious 'grandmama'.

Her request was ignored by her daughter. As a result, the grandkids didn't call their grandmother by her preferred name. Instead, behind her back, they affectionately referred to her as "the old bat".

With his quirky tag, it seems that my dad was the exception rather than the rule, as while grandparents in other countries appear to be zealously re-inventing themselves, it seems that here in Ireland we're content to maintain a more traditional approach.

In a recent survey of children who attend Seaview Montessori in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, the overwhelming majority called their grandmothers, 'Granny', 'Nana' or 'Nanny'.

"There were only three exceptions, which were 'NoNo', 'Mama' and 'Matte'," says Martha Maguire, who runs the pre-school. So it was no surprise to learn that most of the tots called their grandfathers 'Granda', a name which was followed closely in popularity by 'Grandad'.

"Others were called 'Papa', 'DeDe', 'Grandy' and 'Joe'," explains Martha.

In the course of his work John Low, editor of 'Senior Times' magazine, has detected a similar trend.

"I've never found any reluctance on the part of Irish grandparents to be called 'Grandma' or 'Grandad'," he says.

"I've come across the odd one who insists on their grandkids calling them by their Christian names," he says, "but they're usually former hippies, or arty types, who may have lived in communes or whatever and so their attitude is different to the norm."

Here he is referring to the baby boomers, traditionally perceived as a free-thinking, boundary-breaking set, many of whom are now at a stage in their lives when they're struggling with the feeling that while their newly acquired grandparent status is welcome, it could play a part in making them sound and feel a little old.

It doesn't matter how young at heart you feel -- becoming a grandparent is often a landmark of irreversible ageing.

American Lauren Charpio, author of 'You Can Call Me Hoppa! The Grandparents' Guide to Choosing a Name that Fits', says that boomers are well used to reinventing aspects of their culture, so that generation is adopting a similar approach to their style of grandparenting.

"They want names that are just as innovative, unique and dynamic as they are," she explains.

Her opinion is shared by Sue Johnson, the US-based co-author of 'Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren', who agrees that many young grandparents don't want to be known by the traditional names used in days gone by.

Breda Ball from Ballyfermot in Dublin took years to break away from her given grandparenting name, and to adopt one which better reflected who she wanted to be.

"I have 13 grandkids," she says. "The eldest, who's 31, calls me 'Ma'. He does that because he lived with me for a while when he was growing up and that's what he heard my kids calling me.

"The rest of them call me 'Gran' and while I used to like that name, I got sick of it after a while. That's why, when my great-grandson was born two years ago, I asked his mother if he could call me 'Bree' and he does."

She's not the only one to re-invent herself in this way. Evelyn Moran, a Galway-based grandmother of 12, told me that she knows of a man called Eddie who asked his grandkids to call him 'Frank'.

"When his wife heard this, she decided that they should call her 'Fran', although that wasn't her name either," she says.

"Their grandkids were almost 10 years of age when it registered with them that 'Fran' and 'Frank' were their grandparents and I think both generations lost out because that connection wasn't made earlier."

While Evelyn would have liked to have been called 'Grandma' by her grandkids, it never happened, as they had another grandmother who was called by that name.

"Because of that, I became known as 'Granny'," she explains.

"While I was only 50 or 51 at the time, I was happy to be called that, and I wouldn't have dreamt of denying my status by rejecting the name in favour of one that would conceal the true relationship between me and my grandkids."

Sue Johnson believes that today's grandparents are perceived differently from those of past generations.

"We're no longer apron-clad or sitting in rocking chairs," she says. "We're vital, young at heart and healthier. We travel more and we want to have fun with our grandchildren, and why wouldn't we, given that the average person is 49 years old when they welcome their first grandchild into the world?"

Mary-Pat Shaw, a grandmother from Glenageary, Co Dublin, agrees that the perception of grandparents as aged has changed.

"When I think back on my childhood, I remember my granny as an elderly woman sitting on a chair," she says. "She was only in her 60s, but she seemed old.

"Things are different now," she continues. "I only remember that I'm old when I look in the mirror and see a grey-haired 57-year-old woman looking back at me.

"My husband teases me about this. He bought me a fridge magnet which reads, 'How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?' I'd think I'd be 30," she laughs.

Even though, like Evelyn Moran, Mary-Pat became a grandparent at the age of 50, the idea of being called by the ageing title of 'granny' didn't bother her.

"I feel proud when my grandkids, Emily (eight) and Charlie (six) call me by that name," she says. "Just hearing the word makes me feel great."

As for those who shun names which readily identify their status as grandparents, Mary-Pat has this to say: "I know of grandparents who insist their grandchildren call them 'Gloria' and 'Jim' or whatever, but I don't go in for that farce."

As for me, I've decided that if ever a time comes in the future when I become a grandmother, I'll avoid being called 'Nana', 'Nan' or anything like that.

Instead, I'm going to be known as 'the fossil'. I like that name, because it conjures up an image of the well-preserved relic I plan to be at that stage of my life.

I have to confess that the idea isn't original. I borrowed it years ago when I was a student in Galway and a friend introduced the original Fossil to me -- her grandmother.

She was a tiny old lady, four foot tall at most, who had an endearing habit of demanding to be served bird-like portions of food on the hour every hour, but she came with her challenges.

When she thought she hadn't been fed in a timely fashion, she kicked up a rumpus. Nobody minded though, as she was altogether adorable, and to me, who had no living grandparents when we were introduced, she was quite simply the perfect granny.

Irish Independent

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