Tuesday, June 8, 2010


One of my cousins just became a grandmother the other day. Mom, dad and baby are doing great. And my cousin is beaming – because she gets to add “Nanna” to her list of names.

In my family, grandmothers are called “Nanna” (with two n’s, thank you very much). But there are a plethora of names people call their grandmothers. They can be called “Grandma” or “Grammy” or “Mamaw.” They can add their first name after their grandmotherly name – like “Mimi Myrtle” or maybe add their last name instead – like “Grammy Gunderson.”

I imagine there are even some women who are called “Granny,” but if I were a grandmother, I wouldn’t want be called that. The name “Granny” makes me think of The Beverly Hillbillies and I picture Granny Clampett with her bun, gingham dress and spindly legs chasing Jethro with a rolling pin. And, now that I think about it, is this where the term “granny glasses” comes from? None too flattering, if you ask me.

On the other hand, it’s a good thing there are so many names for the role because there are many permutations in families nowadays. There may be grandmothers on both the mother’s and father’s side – and there may even be various step-grandmothers thrown in there for good measure.

Kids can’t walk around calling all of these women “Nanna” – it would be too confusing. Mostly for the kid. I mean, they need to be able to differentiate between the cool grandmother who gives them great toys whenever there is a gift-giving occasion – and the not-so-cool grandmother who gives them crappy stuff like socks and underwear.

In my own family, my dad’s mother passed away before I was born, so we didn’t have the dilemma of figuring out a different name for her as the “other” grandmother. So I just had one Nanna who lived until she was 95 years old.

And what a cool Nanna she was. She never gave us socks and underwear for gifts. Instead, she traveled around the world and brought back exotic gifts like dolls with wooden shoes and intricate jewelry from foreign lands. Or money. Sometimes Nanna just gave us cold, hard cash, which was also fine with us.

Even more importantly than the gifts, believe it or not, was the chance to spend time with her. As kids, we went to visit Nanna and Grandpa at their summer cottage on Cape Cod every August and spent two whole weeks with them. (Or at least until Grandpa passed away when I was 9.) But we loved it up there and spent many happy hours swimming and playing at the beach and fishing and picking blueberries and flying kites and doing other fun stuff we didn’t get to do in Ohio.

Now Nanna was a tiny little fireball – I don’t think she even topped 5 feet – and she drove a big ol’ boat of a car. I don’t have any clue what kind of car it was (my brother John would know, I’m sure). But I do remember that it was green and she had a little ceramic figure of a saint affixed to the dashboard. Hopefully it was the Saint of Safe Travels – because I’ve gotta tell you that my Nanna was hell on wheels! She had a hard time seeing over the steering wheel, but that didn’t stop her from driving. Fast. But she was constantly correcting her steering with jittery movements, which meant that those of us unlucky enough to be sitting in the back seat invariably arrived at our destination with queasy stomachs.

As soon as Nanna said the words “road trip,” our oldest brother John would yell “shotgun!” – so that meant that my younger brother, sister and I were the unlucky kids relegated to the back seat. John was good at stacking the deck, too. If ever he was slow on the uptake and someone else managed to call dibs on the front seat, John would torment the other two rear-seat passengers until Nanna pulled over to the side of the road and made John move to the front where she could “keep an eye on him.” Hmmm…pretty slick move, wouldn’t you say?!

While on our vacation to the Cape, my parents would sometimes take a day or two to recharge their batteries and get away from their four brats, er, darling children and Nanna would take care of us. She wanted to make the time fun, so we usually went somewhere for the day.

There was one memorable trip we took with Nanna to Provincetown, at the tip of the Cape. This was in the 60’s when flower-power was at its height and hippies were common in P-Town.

We arrived around lunchtime, which was bad news for my younger siblings and me as our stomachs were in no condition to ingest food. But Nanna marched us along until she found a place that served burgers and fries, which she figured was a treat for us kids as opposed to our normal bologna sandwiches. So in we walked…and found ourselves inside a dark bar. There were long-haired guys hunched over stools along the bar drinking beer, which made Nanna go “tsk-tsk.” Yes, she actually said this. Nanna was very good at “tsk-tsking” and one really did not want to be on the receiving end of it.

My guess is that she was “tsk-tsking” not because they were drinking – because Nanna herself was known to enjoy a cocktail or two from time to time – but probably because it was only lunchtime and these guys were sitting in a bar wasting their lives. Nanna never apparently heard the song “It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere.”

Anyway, the bartender made some sort of rude comment about bringing kids into his bar and he made the mistake of calling her “lady.” By the end of the conversation he was deferentially calling her “ma’am.” And before we finished our burgers and fries, the beer drinkers had all slunk off. Probably to go to confession somewhere or get a haircut, be my guess.

After lunch, I remember walking down the street and seeing stoned out hippies lying around on the grass. One guy was lying there in a happy haze – or at least until he encountered Nanna. He was sprawled across the sidewalk with his big, black boots sticking up in the air that made sidestepping him impossible. So one-by-one, my siblings and I veered around him and into the street so as to avoid confrontation.

Not Nanna. Oh no. She stood there staring down at him until he flipped open an eyelid and peered up at her. Admittedly, he didn’t have far to look up. But they stared at each other without saying a word until finally he dropped his eyes in defeat. But he didn’t move. So she prodded his jeans-clad leg with the tip of her sensible old-lady shoes and told him that he should be ashamed of himself – a young man like him lying practically in the street. She told him to move out of the way of pedestrians and, finally, after some sort of internal debate (perhaps he was thinking of pounding on a little old lady, but she looked kind of feisty and he didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of his stoner friends?), he rearranged himself so that he was no longer blocking the sidewalk.

Nanna didn’t say another word – she just calmly continued on her way down the sidewalk. Or maybe she tsk-tsked – but I was far enough away from her by that point so I didn’t actually hear it.

That’s pretty much my entire recollection of that particular visit to Provincetown. I’m quite sure I blocked the memory of the trip home because I guarantee you that car sickness was involved. Fortunately none of us ever tossed our cookies in the back seat. I’m guessing that Nanna’s “tsk-tsking” would have gone into overdrive and we couldn’t have borne the shame.

But queasy stomachs notwithstanding, I have such great memories of my Nanna. I miss her, even though she has been gone for twenty years now. And I can still hear her saying, “Jane Dear...” (never just “Jane” – it was always “Jane Dear...”), which was usually followed by, “Can you please reach {such-and-such} for me?” (Did I mention she was tiny?)

So I’m thrilled for my cousin who is a newly-minted Nanna. And I know her grandson will have some great memories of his Nanna, too. Maybe she should practice “tsk-tsking” though. She can still be cool. She just needs to avoid the bun. And maybe the rolling pin. And never ever – under any circumstances – purchase socks or underwear as a gift. Trust me, M – you’ll do great!

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