Monday, September 06, 2004

The Crane Sisters

In my childhood home, certain words and phrases were banned. No, not profanity--though we would never have dreamed of swearing in front of our father--but perfectly common things that all children say. We might, for example, have been sent to bed without supper for a statement like, "Hopefully, Daddy will take us to Disneyland again. It was so fun!"

He would cover his ears, grimace and holler--usually from the kitchen, where his selective hearing allowed him to discern any ungrammatical utterance within a 50-foot radius but would prevent him from making out our requests for pork chops instead of baked chicken. "Hopefully means 'with hope,' not 'I hope.' Sheesh! And I take it you meant 'so much fun,' correct? We've been over this a hundred times!"

"Yes, Daddy," we would dutifully reply, dropping our wee heads in shame.

The Old Man would also admonish us to use precise words. A car was never just a car, it was a sedan or a coupe. We never referred to pasta as "spaghetti" unless that's truly what it was. (Once a week, we'd have bucatini and meatballs or gemelli and meatballs or orecchiette and meatballs, which necessitated a lot of explaining on the very rare occasions when a friend would come for dinner.)

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970's and 80's, this un-hip grammar and usage burden was a lot to put up with. (Sorry, Daddy, "it was a lot up with which to put." I will not end sentences with prepositions. I will not end sentences with prepositions. I will not end sentences with prepositions.) While the valley girls and surfers peppered the verbal landscape with vivid, entertaining slang, my sister and I spoke like Frasier and Niles Crane.

Sitting down to that aforementioned pasta, "Can you pass the parmesan?" would be transformed into, "May I have the parmigiano reggiano, please?" And while this may sound merely pompous or stuffy coming from a fifty-something man in tweed, it sounds truly preposterous in the mouths of seven- and nine-year-old girls.

We were, quite understandably, ostracized by most of our peers--though sis did eventually hook up with a little blonde girl whose mother had encouraged her to memorize the collected works of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Clearly, she was one of us.) My few friends were very kind little people and likely looked upon me as a charity case. (My garage-sale clothing--always ten years out of date--certainly made me an object of pity, but that's another story and involves my schizophrenic mother, so I'll save it for a later day.)


My father's obsession with the language also led him to delight in puns. (As a sportswriter covering a national track and field competition in the 1960's, his crowning headline was, "These Are the Tries That Time Men's Soles." He still brings it up, his eyes brimming with pride.)

All Burmashave signs (anybody out there under age sixty-five know what I'm talking about?) were firmly embedded in his long-term memory, so, naturally, he felt that we should learn them as well. We could often be observed barreling down the highway in the back seat of our blue Chevy station wagon, chanting, "Car in ditch/Driver in tree/Moon was full/And so was he!," our tiny sopranos in unison, giggling and wishing we were bold enough to ask him why it was supposed to be so funny.


While I have allowed the years to mellow my neurotic attention to grammar and usage, my sister has taken the opposite tack, honing her language knife for use on her two plump children.

Several years ago, she served us a lovely veal dinner. On the side was a crisp, delicious salad of mixed greens. E., her youngest--about six at the time--was selectively picking out and eating the watercress and radicchio. I was mentally applauding her culinary maturity: iceberg was the only green I would have endured in my mouth at her age. So, when questioned about the pile of leaves untouched on her plate, E. said she didn't like "the bitter white lettuce."

"But, E.!," cried my sister, clearly aghast, "that's not lettuce, it's Belgian endive!"

Ah, Frasier.


Blogger Barren Mare said...

My grandmother used to regularly correct my grammar. It drove me berserk. But then, I never really understood what the big deal was until I started to write myself.. Now I walk a line between following form & just getting it out there. I can only hope readers will endure the (gasp!) superfluous comma or three, the split infinitive.

I love your writing.

3:34 PM  
Blogger DeadBug said...


I'm so mortified--just pulled up my blog and found that (gasp) all of my formatting for my latest entry had disappeared in the posting process. Guess I haven't mellowed as much as I thought, since I simply HAD to fix it immediately, before anyone else might see. All of those missing paragraph tags! I am such a bad blogger; I just can't get the hang of, well, "letting it all hang out," I guess.

Thank you for the comments and encouragement--you rock.


p.s. I'm commenting over at your blog now...

6:18 PM  

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