| Musings |

The Name Game

Babi was out. Grandma was also out. Bubby for sure was out. Bubby was the stuff of tales from the alte heim


My first grandson received his very own name. Now, it was my turn.

This was a big deal. Becoming a grandparent is a magnificent milestone. What I was called would set the tone for how my grandchildren would relate to me for the rest of my life. I wanted to get it right.

In the olden days, there weren’t many moniker choices.  It was basically Babi or Bubby, depending on the part of Europe you hailed from. I also suspect they had other things on their minds… like being grateful they made it to babihood at all. But in today’s multicultural and longer-living era, we have many options.

I’ve noticed that for some of us who recall our ancient babbis (who were probably all of 50 when we first met them), there’s no way we want to be called any name that resembles theirs. The same goes for being called Grandma, if that’s synonymous with your definition of old. I had a Babi and a Grandma; to me, both names smacked of false teeth in a glass by the bedside.

My mother, unlike me, looked forward to being called Grandma. My father, not so much. Indeed, he spent so much time obsessing about what he should be called that by the time his second grandchild came along, he still had no name (the grandfather, not the child). I solved his problem by simply continuing to refer to him as Abba to my children and thus, Abba he stayed for the remainder of his years.  It did get confusing at times in school when my children talked about their Abba and their Totty….

So what was I going to be called? Like Abba, I couldn’t decide. I’d like to think that my reason for not wishing to be called Babi is more than skin-deep, that it goes beyond the silly need to keep up a youthful image in my grandchildren’s eyes. Because, face it, even if I was 38 at the time of becoming a grandmother, my grandchildren, bless them, would still think of me as elderly.

No, I didn’t want to be called Babi because I didn’t want to be the babi my babi was to me. It wasn’t her fault, and I’m certainly not blaming her, may her soul rest in peace, but I always suspected she didn’t really like me. Of course, I now realize it wasn’t me she didn’t like, it was teenagers (and honestly, who can blame her?).

My grandparents lived with us during my last two years of high school. As parents of teens know, living with a teenager is like living inside a dormant volcano. When you add a grandparent to the mix, it’s like living inside an active volcano, constantly on the verge of erupting.

My Babi hated my telephone “addiction.” I didn’t have my own line, and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, so the sight of me gabbing away all night deeply upset her.

A lot of fights ensued over those — what I considered at the time — lifeline calls to my friends. I remember hiding from my grandmother under the dining room table one night, trembling as I clung to the phone wire and whispered into the mouthpiece, “She’s coming.” It was very late, and the lights were off in the room. I heard my grandmother call out near me in her heavy Hungarian accent, “I know you’re in there, Miriam.” For some reason, she didn’t turn on the light; after waiting a long minute and hearing nothing, she shuffled back to bed.

Decades later, I laugh when I think about it. But that night, I felt like my life, as I knew it, was over. In fact, I recall informing my friend the next morning in school that I was moving into her basement.

I never did. My Zayde called me into the study that afternoon, patted my hand gently and said (in his even stronger Yiddish accent), “Your Babi is an old lady, meidele. She gets nervous sometimes. Don’t let it bother you.”

I don’t know why (it may have had something to with the fact that school was finishing a month later, and I was leaving to Eretz Yisrael to seminary two months after that), but it did stop bothering me.

Still, I wasn’t going to be called Babi.

So, Babi was out. Grandma was also out. Bubby for sure was out. Bubby was the stuff of tales from the alte heim. I didn’t belong in the alte heim. I was young! (Uh-oh, there we go again — the silly skin-deep need to look young. Okay, so I’m not perfect. Now you know.)

My friend with no Yekkish roots decided to be called Omi. That’s what I was looking for, I thought, a fresh name with no attachments. I began to turn “Savta” around in my mind. I didn’t grow up reading about an old Savta. I didn’t even know any Savtas. Hmmm, maybe. It was foreign, a little exotic. But not too much. However, then I realized that because I had no personal connection with the name, it didn’t conjure up warm or fuzzy either.

And that was when my daughter, like her mother before her, took matters into her own hands. One day, as I walked in the door, she told her little son (and the little sister who’d already joined him!), “Savti’s here!”

And so, Savti I became, and Savti I remain until this day.

How do I feel about Savti? I’m still not in love with the appellation. More significantly, perhaps, I’m not sure who I am when I wear the title. I’m not sure who Savti is or who she’s supposed to be (or even what she wants to be when she grows up).

What does Savti stand for? When my grandchildren think of me, what runs through their mind? Aside from “How much candy can I get out of her this time?” do they think, “There’s my loving Savti who lives for my next breath,” or “There’s someone somehow related to me, though I’m not sure how because how could my mommy have a mommy?”

Lots of question.

But happily, I do have some answers.

Here’s my short list.

As fantastical as it sounds, I really am my grandchildren’s mommy’s mommy or totty’s mommy. (And get this: I also have a mommy!)

I do live for their next breath and for every other milestone in their lives.

And with no regard to whether they deserve it or not, I will give them candy every single time they visit.

I love all my eineklach (even the teenagers, though, thankfully, I don’t live with any of them).

And I still have all my teeth.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 750)


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