• Sandra B

Your Name is the Sweetest Sound – Go Mollie!

The BBC headline read “My 93-year-old grandmother learning to fly.” It’s certainly eye-catching and I think we’d all agree, a bit daring and unusual. But it highlighted for me something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Do we lose our identity as strong, capable and productive individuals as we get older and especially when we become grandparents?

I first thought of it a few years ago when I realised in my office that all of my colleagues regularly asked after Granny Ruby. Our boys, when they were very young, had started calling our mums Granny Ruby and Granny Kathleen. It was a great way to distinguish the two and both grannies always seemed delighted with the descriptors. Before we knew it though, everyone in the family, including Tom and I, were referring to them in this way.

“Gran” and “granny” are of course terms of endearment. For many new grandparents, the new titles are badges of honour and achievement. A sign that the family is growing and that an exciting new era has begun. All around us we see proud grandparents and extended families basking in the pure joy of being part of a fun-loving three or four generation family and that’s great. But, is it right, or even desirable, for everyone else, including the media, to redefine a person’s identity?

It turns out that the 93-year-old woman mentioned in the BBC online article has been flying since she was 70 years old - 23 years hardly makes her a new learner. And in her working career she was in the navy during World War 2 in active service and since then she has been a nurse, a chef and an outstanding horsewoman. Strong, active and healthy all of her life, might a better headline not be something like “Mollie Macartney still piloting planes at 93!”

When I realised that Ruby isn’t my “Granny Ruby” and was in danger of being perceived by all my friends and colleagues as granny first and the strong, well-educated character, friend and all-round force of nature that she is, I decided to stop calling her that out of context.

She loves for her grandsons to call her granny and I will be proud beyond measure to be a granny someday, but I don’t want to be defined primarily in that way for the rest of my older life. Husband Tom, be well warned, if you ever start calling me Granny as a matter of course, sparks will fly.

And here’s why. A lazily applied label can be a short hop, skip and a jump to changed perceptions of us as individuals - and they’re not always positive or easy to reverse. When you hear a middle aged man call his wife “grandma” or “mother” can you imagine them chasing each other lustily around the sofa on a Saturday night? Just saying, be careful with those labels....

When I heard my colleagues affectionately talk about “Granny Ruby” I realised that I had narrowed their perception of her to something that is just a small part of her identity. I instinctively know that was wrong, even if done with the best of intentions. It’s a hard habit to break though and I’m still trying. The fact that Ruby doesn’t mind is not the point.

So here’s a tip - talk with family members when children are born about what they’d like to be called and try not to let what the children call them become the norm for everyone to use.

Psychologists say one of the sweetest sounds we ever hear is our name. We love it when others take the time to remember it and are a bit disappointed when they don’t or keep getting it wrong. Yet many young children don’t even know their much-loved granny’s first name. Is it any wonder some grow up not realising she was ever anything other than a much older relative?

My name is Sandra. I didn’t choose it, but it’s absolutely fine and a core part of my identity. Sandra first and every other label second - whatever great age I may one day reach!

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© 2019 by Sandra Burke