What It’s Like to Have a Linguist for a Mom
Lessons on creativity, comma placement, and life
Every story, novel, poem, or parody I write gets a first-cut edit from my mother, and it happens without her ever laying eyes on the piece. She is always in my head, gazing at me from the ridge of a ravine.
On the other side, 13-year-old me stomps her feet on a rock and tosses her long hair over her shoulder, posing to capture the wind. She is furious. Her parents have moved her to a college town in the mountains to start graduate school, and she’s about to start seventh grade. No one consulted her about relocating (because she’s 13). No one cared about her plans (because she’s 13). And now, her mother has the nerve to tell her she can’t hike alone through the deep woods of the national forest behind their house as the sun sets behind the mountains.
Teenage Me tucks her hair behind her ear and spits, “I’m only here because of you. Just remember: moving here was your dream, not mine.” She expects these words to cross the rocky divide, punch her mother in the solar plexus, and double her over with regret for the many ills she’s inflicted upon her innocent child.
And indeed, my mother doubles over, tears streaming down her face. She is laughing so hard she can’t breathe. She sweeps her arm to encompass the scene: rocky outcrop, spires of ponderosa pines stretching toward an azure sky, indignant teenager who selected a literal chasm for her big parental confrontation. She laughs and laughs, and finally chokes out a single word.
Even now, decades later, I hear her laughter and that word.
“Yes, really,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ear. “The scene was that ridiculous.”
“It’s still a bit much,” says my mother. She tilts her head and transforms the ravine into a gully, shortens my long hair, quiets the wind.
My mother’s own prose is equal parts puckish and precise. She honed her words in graduate school, applying statistical analysis to language and the ways we wield it against each other. The title of her dissertation was Hierarchical Influences on Language Use in Memos. Don’t write a passive-aggressive note to my mother; she will flay your language to its bones.