I knew when our first grandchild was born 11 years ago that she wouldn’t be calling me “grandma.” Bailey was my stepson’s daughter, which means that there were two biological grandmothers ahead of me in line when it came to choosing a grandmother name.
“What would you like to be called?” my husband, newly dubbed “Grandpa,” asked.
“How about Joanypony?”
“Why not? It’s a little unconventional,” he said with a fond smile, “but then, so are you.”
Joanypony was my childhood nickname, and close friends still called me that. It was chosen, I was told, because I was frolicsome and playful, like a pony. A free spirit. The name captured the essence of my inner child. I wanted Bailey to know and love that part of me, and herself.
The fact that my husband and I were the third set of grandparents invited to visit newborn Bailey did not diminish my joy when I first held my granddaughter. She was even more beautiful in person than in her photo. After she learned to talk, hearing her giggle and say “Joanypony” for the first time was thrilling.
Carving out special time
We didn’t see Bailey as often as I would have liked, but I was determined to make our time together special. We particularly enjoyed going for walks, exploring her beautifully landscaped suburban neighborhood. One day, seeing a tree with a lush, green branch close to the ground, I reached for the branch and sang, “Oh beautiful tree, won’t you dance with me,” swinging my arm back and forth.
“Come, dance with us,” I beckoned to Bailey. The two of us dancing with the tree brought me such joy that I started to sing, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Zip-a-Dee-Ay, My oh my, what a wonderful day.”
After that, we always looked for trees to sing and dance with, and good hills to roll down.
I’m a writer and I’ve always loved journaling, so when Bailey was 5, I gave her a yellow journal with butterflies on the cover and encouraged her to write about her family and pets and all the things we did together. I created a toy box that held building blocks, games, books, and even a harmonica. We also enjoyed grandmother-granddaughter yoga sessions.
“Would you take a bath with me?” three-year-old Bailey asked during a visit to our home.
“Sounds like fun.”
We climbed into the tub. There were no bath toys at my house, but I knew we could create our own enjoyment. Bailey sat on my raised knees, with her back to me. I became a boat, gently tossing her to and fro along the waves, and we went on all kinds of adventures.
Then Bailey noticed the bright red dots on my arms and legs.
“What are these?” she asked.
When I had asked my dermatologist about them at 50, she reassured me, “It’s part of aging. Nothing to worry about. They’re called cherry angiomas.”
“Cherries,” I told Bailey, knowing how much she loved the fruit.
She grinned and held up her fingers, which were wrinkled from our bathtub play.
“Aunt Jill said these are raisins.”
I plucked an imaginary cherry off my leg and handed it to her. She put her wrinkled pinky finger on my lips saying, “Here’s a raisin.”
The girls I never had
When Bailey was 3, her sister Peyton was born. She grew up watching me and Bailey play. When Peyton turned 3, she asked for her own journal, even though all she could do was scribble.
It was finally time for Peyton to visit us on her own when she was 6 years old. The night before, she phoned me. “I can’t wait to write in my journal,” she said. “Now that I’m in first grade, I can finally write words!”
When she arrived at our house and saw the 237 journals that lined my bookshelves, she asked, “When I get older, will you read me your journals?”
“I’ll read you something right now,” I said, pulling one from the shelf. She snuggled next to me on the sofa.
“Peyton came to visit,” I read, “and wanted me to keep her company while she used the potty. As she was sitting there, I started to laugh. She asked, ‘Why are you laughing?’ ‘Because I love you so much and am so glad you’re visiting.’ She smiled up at me. ‘Want me to come again?’ “
I shut the journal and said, “That was a fun day.”
Peyton gave me a hug. “I love you, Joanypony.”
l though there were lots of things I did with both granddaughters, there were also special things I did with each. With Peyton, one special project was making an outfit for Rae, the little white bear I had bought for myself 20 years earlier on my way to meet Peyton’s Grandpa for the very first time. Our date was to take place at a hotel restaurant. On the way, I stopped at the hotel gift shop and the little bear caught my eye. At the time, I was a 50-year-old divorced, childless woman. I’d gone on a lot of disappointing dates and hoped the little white bear would bring me luck.
Peyton loved the story about Rae being as old as my relationship with her Grandpa. (And how we even took the little bear on our honeymoon.)
As we sewed a hat for Rae, Peyton held the little bear close and asked, “Why didn’t you have children?”
“I wanted to, except they took a part out of my body you need to make a baby. But that’s okay. You and Bailey are the little girls I never had.”
Outgrowing a name
Now, 11 years after I was first asked to choose a name for myself, the “big girls” — 11 and 8 — have outgrown their delight in calling me Joanypony. On a recent visit, we were watching a movie about a teenage girl who yearned to be a champion ice skater. She befriended a young man who operated the Zamboni at the rink where she practiced.
“What’s a Zamboni?” the girls asked me.
“A Zamboni smooths out the ice so a skater can use it.”
Toward the end of the movie, upset about the challenges she’s encountered, the skater goes to a pond to practice, but it’s too rough and bumpy for skating. Suddenly, the young man from the rink appears with his Zamboni to save the day.
Immediately, I had an idea.
“My new name is JoanyZamboni!” I announced. “But you can just call me Zamboni.”
They loved it.
On their next visit Bailey said, “You’re my Zamboni. You help smooth out my life.”
I wonder if Zamboni will stick, or if I’ll have to find another name to capture their changing needs and my evolving awareness of what my spirit can offer them.
For now, the others are welcome to “Grandma” and “Grammy.” I’m happy to be Zamboni.