Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

Last week was my mother’s birthday, and it made me think about how what I called her evolved. And that led to the question of whether personality of the namee or the namer has something to do with what we become.

Here’s what I mean. My mother always called her mother “Mother,” and I in turn called her “Grandmother.” As I grew, my image of the word “Mother” brought to mind someone not huggable, not at all affectionate, a little “off-putting,” so to speak. That may be because my grandmother was definitely not the sweet grandmotherly type you see in memes on Facebook, for example. So my mother evolved into “Mama,” and she remained that for the rest of her life, largely because she was always the loving mom and even more loving when grandchildren came along. She was definitely my mama, not my mother.

As a result, when I became a parent, I didn’t want to be “Mother,” so I went the route of “Mommy” and eventually encouraging “Mom,” as many of us today do.

Then as a very new parent, I discovered that my image of the word “Mother” wasn’t the same for others. I had a friend whose mother hated the word “Mom.” She had always been called Mother because she insisted “Mom” stood for “Mean Old Mother.”

Along those lines, the woman who raised my mother (who grew up in foster care) was called “Granny,” and I always considered that word synonymous with a mean old grandmother – perhaps worse than Grandmother – because my image of her was very much aloof and not huggable and, frankly, not nice.

But as my children grew, it became apparent that I didn’t have the final word on what my children call me. It dawned on me that son Mac had indeed gone from Mommy, when he was little, to Mom, when he thought he was too old to still call me Mommy. But my girls went, independently of one another, a different route. Both Cat and Liz call me Mama. I don’t know exactly how that came about or why.

You could argue that they heard me calling my mother “Mama”; however, that’s not really true. When Mac was born, I definitely had an image of what I wished a grandmother to be – and it wasn’t for her to be called Grandmother. At the same time, Tom’s mother had quickly established herself as Grandmother with her first grandchild, Christopher. But, sadly, Christopher got spinal meningitis when he was 2 and 1/2, and his hearing was significantly damaged. His speech devolved, and he eventually called his Grandmother Britt Memaw.

Then Mac came along, and I think he was trying to mimic Chris when he began to talk. Mac called my mother “Me-Mo,” and it stuck. From then on, it was easier for Tom and me to call her Me-Mo, as well. That way everybody knew about whom we were speaking.

As an aside, grandparent names made it so much easier for some of us. When Tom and I married, I didn’t want to call his mother “Mother.” I already had a mother, you see. I wasn’t comfortable calling her by her first name, either. So I really didn’t call her anything, and I referred to her simply as Tom’s mother. But once her position as grandmother was established, I could call her “Grandmother.” The same was true for Tom – he finally had a name for my mother with which he could be comfortable, Me-Mo.

This evolution proved to be similar with both my sons-in-law, who really never called Tom or me anything, until we had determined our names as grandparents. (For some reason my daughter-in-law was immediately comfortable calling Tom and me by our first names – and I’m OK with that.)

And just as I had been certain I didn’t want to be “Mother” to my children, I was even more adamant that I would not be any number of typical names assigned to grandmothers. For example, I was sure that I didn’t want to be Grandmother or Granny, for the reasons mentioned above, I likewise didn’t want to be Memaw, Mamaw, Nanny, or even Grandmother Britt, etc. Another aside: When Tom was a baby, so the story goes, he couldn’t master the word “Grandmother,” for his dad’s mother, who lived down the street. After all the adults tried to help him with a couple of variations – most notably Grandmother or Grandma – Tom’s grandad, a big and imposing character, said one day, “Aw, just call her ‘Nanny,’” and it became her grandparent moniker.

I have reported here before that when grandson Cade was born, I searched for a name I could be happy with. My next door neighbor was already “Nana,” so I decided that was out. I looked at my contemporaries, many of whom had taken the first letter of their first name and made BeBe for Brenda, CeCe for Carolyn, GeGe for Gail, etc. But think about it – my first name starts with a “P,” so I decided that wouldn’t work. (I suppose I could have become “PhePhe,” but I didn’t think about that at the time. And besides, I associate FiFi with dogs, so I wouldn’t have liked that either.) I would have been happy with Gran (yes, I grew up in the “All My Children” era of TV soaps). Or I might have been OK with Gram or Grammy.

But I decided on “YaYa.” It’s Greek for grandmother, though the Greeks spell it YiaYia. There was a brief moment with both Cade and later Payton, that I thought they might not go for YaYa. When Cade was just talking, I’d sit him on my lap and point to him and say, “Cade.” Then I’d point to me and say, YaYa.” He would point to himself and say, “Cade.” However, he’d point to me and say, “Nana.” I have no idea where that came from, and Payton did the very same thing when she came along.

The good news is that I won out in the end, and I am “YaYa” to all seven of my grandchildren.

So I ask again, how do we come to be called what we’re called, and what inherent prejudices help in that decision?

In my life, it’s half and half – I definitely chose YaYa, but I apparently had no real control over what my children call me, even now.

How about you?