Soon after my daughter Julie and my son-in-law Sam told us they were expecting our first grandchild, my husband Larry and I discussed what grandparent name by which we each hoped to be called.
Larry determined quickly that he would be called Zayde, Yiddish for grandfather. It was a family tradition, he stated. His father’s father was Zayde Max, and his own father was Zayde Ernie to his seven grandchildren.
Choosing my name didn’t come as easily. My friend Lynn, whose granddaughter lived in Israel, suggested the Hebrew moniker Saftah, but I didn’t think that would work for our future grandchild, who would be living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado at 9100 feet above sea level. The paternal grandmother, who had a four-year-old granddaughter, already had dibs on Nana. Additional members of the Grandmother Club told me about their sometimes unusual titles: MeeMaw, GG, G-Ma, CiCi, NayNay, Gemmy, and even (Graham) Cracker. Although Bubbe went well with Zayde, I dismissed it as too old fashioned. I pondered the numerous options over the next few months.
Larry and I were in Colorado the day Julie went into labor. While waiting for the Big Moment, we took a hike up to Rainbow Lake, a lovely spot a mile up the mountain near Julie and Sam’s home. On the trail, we ran into another couple who, noticing Larry’s Syracuse University hat, told us they were also from Central New York State. After chatting with them about the Orangemen’s basketball team and the amount of snow that fell the past winter, Larry and I told them about our grandchild’s imminent birth. They congratulated us, stating how much they themselves enjoyed being grandparents.
“What do they call you?” I asked the woman, whose name was— ironically—Julie.
“Grandma,” she said. “I waited a long time for grandchildren, and I am proud to go by the standard name.”
That sealed it for me. Meeting a Julie from Syracuse on a hike the day my grandchild was born was b’shert—meant to be. I would stick with the classic “Grandma.”
Larry and I were introduced to our granddaughter an hour after she was born. When I held her in my arms in the hospital room, I was in heaven. I was finally a grandma! I enjoyed every moment of that summer and the three visits over the next year.
By the time we returned to a rented condo for another Rocky Mountain summer just before her first birthday, our granddaughter was talking. We secretly hoped that, along with her rapidly expanding vocabulary— Dada, Mama, dog, bear, boo (blueberries), yesh, and dough (no)—she would learn and say our names before we went back to Florida.
Happily, over the next six weeks, we spent many hours with her, not only with her parents but also without them as exceptionally willing babysitters. As she sat in her high chair eating her meals and snacks, I determinedly coached her.
“Dog,” I said, pointing to Neva, who was waiting patiently with her tail thumping for the next dropped morsel. “Grandma!” I said, pointing to my chest. My granddaughter would smile and laugh and offer me her smashed banana or mushed piece of challah. Nothing in her babbling, however, even came close to “Grandma.”
Four days before we were to return to Florida, Larry and our granddaughter were playing on the floor with her blocks. “Zayde!” she suddenly stated emphatically. Larry’s face lit up like the Syracuse University scoreboard. She said it again—and again. From that moment, Zayde became her favorite word. She called out “Zayde!” the minute Larry walked into the room, and she yelled it out if he disappeared behind a closed door. Talk about melting a grandfather’s heart!
As happy as I was for Zayde Larry, I was a little—well—make that extremely jealous. My efforts to hear Grandma—any version— intensified. “Grandma!” I said every chance I got. As the hour of our departure got closer, I became desperate and switched tactics. “Bubbe,” I tried, deciding an old sounding name was better than no name at all.
The morning before we were to fly back to Florida, I babysat my granddaughter while Julie and Sam were at work and Larry was returning the rental car. After her morning nap, I lay my granddaughter on the dressing table to change her diaper. She looked into my eyes and clearly said, “Bubbe!” “Yes! Bubbe!” I cried. My granddaughter had spoken, and I was going to be Bubbe! I was over the moon! I immediately shared the news with Larry. Our granddaughter said the magic word again after lunch and after her afternoon nap. When Sam returned home from work that evening, this
Bubbe was bursting with joy.
“And she repeated this every time you changed her diaper?” Sam asked somewhat hesitantly.
“Every time!” I said. “She clearly said Bubbe!”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Marilyn,” Sam said. “But she wasn’t actually calling you Bubbe. It’s her world for butt paste. She has had some diaper rash this past week, and—well—she likes to hold the closed tube after we finish applying it.”
“Butt Paste!” Larry chortled. “She is calling you Butt Paste.”
The day after we returned to Florida, our Colorado family FaceTimed with us. The minute our granddaughter saw our faces on the computer screen, she yelled out, “Zayde!”
“And look who is with me!” said Larry. “It’s Bubbe Butt Paste!”
It took another two months to realize that our now sixteen month old granddaughter could not say the “gr” sound. “How about you call me ‘Gammy?’” I asked her. She smiled broadly and said “‘Gammy!’”
Six years and more grandchildren later, I am now a confirmed Gammy. But I will be happy to receive their smiles, their laughs, their hugs, and their unconditional love—no matter what I am called.
First published in The Jewish World, September 1, 2016