By Maraley McMichael
Senior Voice Correspondent 

All in the name of Grandma


April 1, 2021 | View PDF

Courtesy Maraley McMichael

Maraley McMichael with grandson, Harlen, during his visit to Alaska in August 2007.

"So, Mom, what do you want to be called when you become a grandma?" my daughter, Erin, asked in the weeks after we learned she was expecting our first grandchild. This question set off much discussion and research that would continue all through her pregnancy. I could never have guessed my name would become Grandma Aye-Yi. Short for Aye-Yi-Yi!

Our two children were very fortunate to have two grandpas and two grandmas as they grew up. My husband, Gary, and I thought nothing of calling both sets of our parents "Grandpa and Grandma," but it wasn't long before we had to add the last names of either Clayton or McMichael to differentiate who we were referring to. As I thought about becoming a grandma, I knew I wanted a name unique to me, but that also wasn't a mouthful. The only name I could rule out was "Granny," because my soon-to-be-born grandson's other grandmother had already claimed that moniker.

I even consulted our son and his wife, as I hoped to have just one name that would work for both families. My daughter-in-law did her own research and emailed me a list of possible names with their explanation of meaning. She also said that her mother would be called "Mamacita," so that crossed out another option.

In the meantime, I read a couple of articles by other baby boomers turned grandmothers, about their quest for a special grandmother name. Nana, Nono, Meema, Meme, MiMi, Bubbe – so many possibilities, but none seemed just right. I even inquired about the term for grandmother in the Ahtna Den'ae traditional language, since I grew up in Glennallen.

There seemed to be no problem as far as Gary was concerned. He was PaPa to our kids growing up, which changed to Pop as they got older. Pop, Pa, or Grandpa were all fine with him. Our grandson's other Grandpa was already PawPaw.

After Harlen was born, during one last discussion with Erin, it was decided that I would be just plain Grandma! So it was settled...Grandma and Grandpa, but at least we wouldn't have to add our last name for clarification.

All that fuss, and of course Harlen didn't call us anything for the first year. We realized we'd have to be patient, knowing the "g" sound is one of the last sounds a child learns to say.

When Harlen was 17 months old, he and his family traveled from Colorado to Alaska for a two week vacation. We so enjoyed our time with him and we communicated well, but he didn't yet call us Grandma and Grandpa. He spoke a few words, such as "hi," but was still not talking much.

One morning during this visit, while we were all at my dad's cabin on Kenai Lake, I was cooking a big breakfast of potatoes, eggs and bacon in the kitchen, while Harlen was out in the living room with everyone else having a pre breakfast snack in his highchair. I didn't want to miss all the fun, so I joined the party in the living room. All of the sudden I remembered the breakfast and ran back to the kitchen. As I turned the potatoes and onions over and saw they were quite dark, I exclaimed, "Aye Yi-Yi! I'm burning the potatoes!" I was surprised and delighted to hear a little echo of "Aye Yi-Yi" coming from the living room. Harlen imitated my words and tone of voice perfectly.

A month later, they were back home in Colorado and Gary and I were in Nome for the "Pioneers of Alaska" annual convention. Our cell phone rang as my dad, Gary, and I sat in a local restaurant eating lunch. Erin said, "Mom, Harlen was thinking about you, so I decided to call so he could hear your voice." I replied, "Great, wonderful, but how could you possibly know he was thinking about me in particular?" "Well," she said, "he was sitting in the living room and he said "Aye Yi-Yi". I asked him if he was thinking about Grandma and he nodded his head."

After that, when I called, Erin would ask Harlen if he wanted to talk to Grandma Aye Yi-Yi. Then it was shortened to Aye-Yi. We saw him in person at 20 months of age. "Hi" had become "Hallo" with the emphasis on the first syllable and he greeted us with "Hallo Aye-Yi" and "Hallo Pa," repeating that over and over because he was so excited to see us.

Gary and I continued our "snowbird" adventures that winter. One particular phone call is permanently etched in my mind. Harlen was at home in Colorado and we were in Texas. At the end of our conversation, Harlen said in his very slow and deliberate way, "I love you, Grandma Aye-Yi." Who could ask for anything more? Even if my name was connected to burnt potatoes and onions.

By the time Harlen turned two, we had definitely become Grandma Aye-Yi and Grandpa. I wasn't sure I wanted to continue to encourage that. I tried unsuccessfully to picture Harlen as a teenager, introducing me to a friend saying, "This is Grandma Aye-Yi." But what the heck, I'd wanted a unique name. It stuck for quite a while, but there was no need to worry. Harlen recently turned 15 and he has called me just plain "Grandma" for years now. Which of course is fine. Who cares, as long as we communicate?

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan now residing in Palmer. Email her at

Author Bio

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan now residing in Palmer.

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