Tags: Walter Dean Myers

An Ironic Evolution of “Grandma”

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: June 4, 2015
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Grandma-case-cropI remember decorating this plastic case for Mother’s Day, 1955. I used glue and glitter back then, a basic art form that survives to this day. Everyone in the group was supposed to write GRANDMA, and dutiful me complied, even though my grandmothers were “Nana” (an English alternative to grandmother) and “Bubbe” (grandmother in Yiddish).  I figured that “grandma” was the correct term of address in America, the nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the kind that inhabited the Dick and Jane readers in my elementary school. I was white, so I was part way to respectability. I could pass.

Flash forward sixty years to an America that at least recognizes more diversity, although we still have a long way to go. The Scrivas and I write for a wider audience, with characters that are drawn from a broader slice of humanity. I, however, am still me. What would I write on my plastic box now?

A key benefit of being in a writer’s critique group is exposure to the backgrounds and perspectives of creative people who observe the world around them. OK, all of the Scrivas are white and female. Still we have a lot that’s not in common, and it’s that lack of commonality that “feeds” me. Among the “grandmothers” and “grandmas” in the Scriva world, we have a few Nanas, an Adyl (meaning precious) and Emme, and a Gram B.

Dick and Jane evolved over the years to include African American characters, which is a small step, I grant you. Just ask Walter Dean Myers, whose essay in the New York Times is entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” And yet, here’s the irony about “grandma.” Our characters have to be true to themselves as well as to the times and places in which they find themselves.

My latest work-in-progress includes an woman, Ly Tien, who was born during the Vietnam War era to an African American GI and a Vietnamese woman. She is later adopted into a white family in the United States, a Jewish family with roots in Denmark, Germany, and Turkey. It’s 2059 Portland and Ly Tien has a granddaughter. What does Ly Tien want to be called?

Grandma. It figures. Adamant as she is about preserving her mixed heritage, Ly Tien wants to be called by the same name that she called the only grandmother she knew, the one who was born in the U.S. in 1919 and wanted to be called “grandma.” Despite the current trend to sound anything but old, there’s still that pull to take on the title that is familiar and perhaps beloved. So, Ly Tien, this plastic box, which came back to me when my Nana died about fifty years ago, is for you.

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