Rites of passage not all created equal

As rites of passage go, becoming a grandparent isn’t one of the tougher ones. Unlike most of the many, many life changes that have come before, there really is no downside to grandparent-hood.

Even with rites of passage that are positive life steps like marriage and graduation, there are negatives. Learning to live with another human being forever can have its challenges and as cool as it is to graduate and put school behind you, it means you have to go out and find a job.

Having a child is perhaps the most life changing of all the human experiences but the prospect of being totally responsible for a human life for 18 years or so and then being on call for emergencies until you die is a daunting prospect.

But grandchildren are a much better deal. They’re little and adorable and love you unconditionally just like your own children. You can take them fishing and bake cookies with them. You can teach even very tiny ones to pit cherries which is a real help even if they do eat most of the cherries they pit. Then when they get bratty and annoying, or perhaps have a bad reaction to eating several pounds of fresh cherries, you can just take them home and let their parents deal with it.

Grandparent-hood is maybe the only thing in life that is all joy and no responsibility. The fact that you get to pass the buck of your own irresponsibility to your child, whom you have spent decades teaching the importance of responsibility is just ironic icing on the cake of that joy.

Although grandparent-hood doesn’t have a downside, it does come with a task. In today’s world, new grandparents must pick their grandparent name. Will you be a Nanna or a Nanny or a Papa or a Poppy or what? There are many choices but the list is not endless and that’s the rub. It is critical that the children’s other grandparents use a different name. If they end up with two Nannies, then they’re no better off than when all grandparents were either grandma or grandpa.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not at all sure what was wrong with that system in the first place. It worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I called both of my parent’s fathers ‘grandpa’ and both of their mothers ‘grandma’ and we were all good with that. I wasn’t confused by calling two the same name. And when I spoke of them to someone else, I’d just tack their name on at the end so no one else was confused.

It was a very simple system. The new rules can get much more complicated. My daughter is an only child so it was relatively simple for my wife and I to pick our names. We just had to make sure they weren’t being used by my son-in-law’s parents. Since they already had grandchildren and had already picked grandparent names, they had dibs. It turned out not to be a problem since my wife wanted to be a Mimi (pronounced Mimmy) which did not conflict with the Nana already in place. I wanted to be Papa (pronounced Poppa) but they already had a Papa. Since he pronounced it “Pah Pah,” we decided there was no conflict. The kid’s wouldn’t be spelling for a while. Problem solved.

For families with multiple children, it can get infinitely more complicated. My baby sister has three children with a bit of an age gap between them so when her first grandchild was on the way, it was not a done deal with her other children as to who her other grandparents-in-law might be. She solved the problem by choosing a total long shot for her grandparent name. She resurrected the long-dormant name we had all used for our great-grandmother whom we called Mammy.

I don’t think exclusivity was her reason for choosing the name but it has been an effective strategy. So far no other Mammys have surfaced and whenever her grandchildren call her, she is reminded of that magical farmhouse sitting on stacks of rocks and tucked into the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains where her own Mammy presided over huge dinners cooked on a wood stove and served with sweet milk from Mammy’s cow with the butter she churned on the back porch while we ran from her crazed yard chickens which were known to peck kids from town.

Simply in the choice of a name, my sister gets all those memories and more every time one of those adorable moppets looks at her and calls her name. Those who thought her choice of grandma name eccentric at best and borderline offensive at worst now know that she was the smartest of all. Simply by choosing her name well, she gets the past and the future all wrapped up inextricably together. She has granted herself the great luxury of looking back every time she looks forward.

So if you don’t already have grandchildren, I hope that some day you are granted that great honor. There is truly nothing better. Meanwhile, be thinking what your name will be. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.

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