A Nana By Any Other Name…

Strega Nona

Fictional character “Strega Nona” is a “grandmother witch” – but in a good way, if you like lotsa pasta.

People who know me well know that I frequently begin a sentence with, “I have a cousin who…”

I have a cousin for every occasion because I have a lot of cousins. Thirty-one on the Irish Catholic side, and that’s just in my generation. Now they have children and grandchildren, and no one knows for sure how many of us there are or what kind of algorithm could produce a sum total. You can imagine what the family reunions are like. Or maybe you can’t. Imagine a convention where everyone is singing and hugging.

This means my grandmother had 32 grandchildren.

We called her Nana. She lived on the east coast with the rest of the extended family while I grew up in the midwest, so I didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I would have liked. In fact, I got to spend very little time with her during her life, and I am envious of the cousins who did. I remember a sweet quiet voice, a composed face, modest lady-like attire, and a little pot of shamrocks growing in her bedroom. She remembered every one of my birthdays. When I was born she and my grandfather sent me a spoon, and she kept the telegram from my father triumphantly announcing my arrival. I have it in my family archives now:

“Kate likes her spoon. Plenty black hair. Mother and baby doing fine.”

I was born with red hair, but my father had the Irish talent for embellished fabrication. And black hair. I no longer have the spoon, but I have my Nana’s chin (as do most of us), her height, and her rotten digestion. Because she was influential in my return to the Catholic church, I again have her faith. And I have her name.

I became “Nana” to continue the relationship I wish had been deeper, more familiar.

I have one child who has one child, and I doubt she’ll have 31 more. I can’t continue the Nana legacy in the same breadth, but I can give it new depth during the days I am privileged to care for my grandson.

Grandmothers are named by family traditions, cultural and ethnic influences, and by their grandchildren. Some of my friends and family shared how they came into their grandmother names.

  • “I’m a cool Gram; no Nana for me, makes me feel old. LOL”
  • “I’m a grandma three times over, with a fourth coming in a few weeks. My two-year-old grandson calls me Nana, and my 4-year-old granddaughter calls me Grandma, though she called me Mamaw until she could say Grandma. I think my grandson’s Nana is slowly becoming Grandma. What’s in a name, huh?”
  • “I’m ‘Agee’ which is Marathi for Grandma. His East Indian Grandma took care of him daily as an infant.”
  • “I am Nona–sometimes with two ‘n’s, Nonna — and it is for my Italian heritage. I also figured “no” would be the first word my granddaughters learned to say, so I capitalized on it. It’s also from Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona, which means “grandma witch” (only in a good way). My girls call me “Nono” now, and they think that is very funny.”
  • “I’m Grammy to one. To the other five I’m Grandma Moose [a play on the last name].”

My long-time friend and sister-educator Mary, contributor of Tomie de Paola’s delightful “Strega Nona” (upper right), remembered her own grandmother:

“I called her ‘gramma,’ and I swear I was 18 before I knew ‘grandma’ had an ‘nd’ in it.”

How familiar. My own Gramma lived on a farm and taught me how to make dolls out of acorns and corn husks, and how to catch lightning bugs. She was my confidant and care giver, and showed me with her own exuberance the liberating self-expression found in music. Now she is my guardian angel. Why didn’t I take the name Gramma? Maybe because I know my lap isn’t as soft, or because I can’t play the piano as well, or whip up a rag doll out of honest to goodness rags, or make pies that melt in the mouth. Maybe it’s because I want to keep my Gramma for myself, so that in my heart I can always be her little girl.

I think that’s the same reason I didn’t become Granny. My daughter’s love for my mother was so deep that I don’t want to move into that space. I just wouldn’t fit. I want her to have her Granny and her Granny memories for herself, so that aspect of her childhood will remain unique and in tact.

Sometimes you need to retire the  jersey – at least for one generation.

So…I have a cousin who…just informed me that today was our Nana’s birthday. She had no idea I was writing this blog or had the intention of publishing today, and I had no idea that the date was so meaningful to our family. Whad’ya know – Irish serendipity. Or maybe I have two guardian angels.

Are you a grandmother by blood or by love? What does your family call you, and what is the origin of the name? Do you have a favorite grandmother memory to share?  We’d love to hear from you. You can contact me at kate@tattooednana.com, or click here to Talk to Nana.

A grandmother by any other name is still as sweet.




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