A Case of the Human Condition: A Child Is Born — And So Is a Grandpa

Berrypicking grandfather and grandson. Photo by BF Newhall

My son Peter berrypicking with his Grandpa. My dad rigged up the berry containers for the expedition. And yes that’s blackberry juice all over Peter’s face. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My friend Jake is a man in his prime. He does triathlons, reads good books, knows all the best hiking trails, drinks nice wines, and likes nothing more than a good, scrappy conversation. In other words, Jake has never been anybody’s rickety old grandpa.

Until recently.

A few months ago, Jake’s daughter gave birth to a baby girl. Jake couldn’t be happier about this delightful new creature in his life.

He wasn’t so sure about his new status as a grandfather, however. It would require him to make a decision, a big one.

What would this child call him?

Jake? Jakey? Jay-Jay?

A grandfather, father and grandson, circa 1941. Photo by Tinka Falconer

Two Grandpa Falconers — and my big brother Davey. Photo by Tinka Falconer

Anything but Grandpa.

Grandpa – that’s what they call the old guys. And Jake was not an old guy.

I feel his pain. My own father went by Grandpa. My grandfathers were Grandpa Falconer and Grandpa Dick. My mother is Grandma. Old people all.

What’s more, where I come from, Grandpa is not pronounced Grand Pa. It’s Grampa – folksy and countrified, with a short, nasal, deeply midwestern “a.”


Likewise, at our house Grandma was never Grand Ma, but Gramma – also with a shot of that nasalized “a.”

Grampa. Gramma. For me, those names have the ring of my father’s small town, Methodist – Mason County, Michigan – antecedents. No dancing, no drinking, no swearing. Reader’s Digest rather than Portnoy’s Complaint. Pie and percolated coffee rather than cruditees and cabernet – or even a Stroh’s.

In my husband’s cosmopolitan, coastal – San Francisco – family, on the other hand, the Newhall elders were known as Scott and Ruth. Jon’s father didn’t care much for small children. At dinnertime, they were always seated as far as possible from the head of the table. Preferably in the next room.

95-year-old grandmother with pince nez and updo.

My Grandma Falconer at 95, complete with pince nez and up-do — a real, old-fashioned grandma. Ludington Studios photo

But once those small children became lovely, supple young women and bright, headstrong young men, they were allowed to approach the table for adult-to-adult conversation with their peers, Scott and Ruth.

My family frowned upon that kind of familiarity. At our house, parents and grandparents were addressed like royalty. Words like Mother, Father, Dad and Mom were honorifics, terms of respect. We’d no more call my parents Dave or Tinka than we’d call the Queen of England Betsy.

Which takes me back to my friend Jake. His first thought was to have the baby simply call him Jake. Or Jakey. Or Jay-Jay. Something cozy, but age-neutral.

After all, no way was he old enough or fusty enough to be anybody’s Gramps or Grandaddy. And if he really were old and rickety, he wouldn’t want it pointed out every time somebody called out his name.

On the Daily Show the other night, Julie Andrews confessed to seven grandchildren. What’s more, she said, she lets her grandchildren call her that most ageifying of endearments – Granny.

Granny Jules, to be exact.

My sophisticated friends Nancy and Steve – she’s a well known artist, he’s a professor at UC-Berkeley – sent us an invitation to their grandson’s second birthday party recently. They signed it, to my astonishment, Nana Nan and Papa Seeda.

Nana Nan? Papa Seeda?

Granny Jules?

How do these people do it? They must own buckets of self-esteem. How else could sophisticated, in-the-mix people like Julie Andrews or Nancy and Steve risk being thought of as – old?

My friend Jake is a thoughtful guy. As I mentioned earlier, he reads good books, urges his friends toward good conversation, and likes to meet his life challenges head-on – with the aid of a nice cabernet if need be.

But maybe Jake, like Nancy and Steve and Granny Jules, was blessed with an abundance of self-esteem after all. (Or was a glass of cabernet involved?) Because somehow my friend Jake finally faced up to the facts.

He may or may not be old, he told himself, but he is a grandfather.

He isn’t this baby’s dad. He’s not her uncle or her big brother. Yes, he loves bicycling, swimming, hiking and scrappy conversation. But he is also this tiny girl’s grandparent.

And grandparents have responsibilities. They are the elders of the family. They provide continuity, stability, security, dignity and maybe even some enlightening dinner table conversation.

It was time, Jake decided, to accept his new responsibilities. And his new title. He’d be what this brand-new little person most needed. He’d be Grampa, with a twang.

Read about my children’s unconventional Newhall grandmother at “Peter’s Fast-Track Grandmother.”




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