By Kristin Kovacic
1. Use a comma to set off introductory elements.
After over a month away, my college freshman sends me an email containing, in its entirety, her opening paragraph for an essay (probably due in a couple of hours). No need to comment; she wants me to check the commas. It is our only inside joke; she doesn’t “get” commas. More precisely, she gets that commas are the only necessary punctuation, allowing the harried, headlong writer to separate ideas, go to the bathroom, dramatically pause, enumerate, whatever—commas are like school paste, hastily completing one ring before the next in the brilliant paper chain of her thinking.
She is brilliant, let me not fail to mention, attending a, cough, elite university. She’s also sensible and diligent, witty, humane. How terrible is it to have one grammatical fault?
Not very. But I know what you’re thinking, you, parent-who-is-not-me. You’re thinking she should be correcting her own comma errors. You’re thinking, how terrible to have only one funny intimacy between you and your daughter, one (count it) joke, after eighteen years of positive, thoughtful, healthy, creative, stable, mindful, whatever, parenting? How lame to get one lousy email in a month?
You tell me, chuckling momma. And I know you will, momentarily. I became a mother just in time for the zeitgeist of self-conscious parenting—we stared, compared, wrote books (guilty!), blogged, bragged. Currently, we buzzfeed our anxieties across the wired universe—Are You Enabling Your Adult Child? Is 25 the New 18? 10 Signs You’re a Helicopter Parent. Or Are You a . . . wait, what’s the opposite of a helicopter?
Tricycle? Dirt bike? Wheelchair? Somewhere on the primitive terrestrial level of emotional locomotion is where my daughter and I bust our moves. My cousin and her daughter exchanged 212 texts and seven phone calls in her first week at college—in this digital parenting age, there are so many new ways to keep score—but that’s not how we roll. We don’t talk, much, my daughter and me. We don’t text. A grammatical point is the center of our intimate universe. So boo me.
Boo her, too, charging ahead, comma-tose, in her spectacular, mother-free life. I envy her, let me put that out there. I’d like to go back to college, belly-up to the buffet table of knowledge, and feast. I’d like to peek out from behind my shiny hair at the smart and sultry guys peeking back.
But that’s a feeling I like to keep separate from missing her. She’d like that, too, and if we had one other joke, she and I, that’d probably be it. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
Do I miss her? Yes, no. No, yes.
2. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things).
Like you, attached parent, I’ve spent the better part of two decades observing this beautiful human. I watched while she composed her tiny arguments with me. At two, holding my gaze, she walked backwards with the juice she was not allowed to take out of the kitchen, already seeking an escape hatch from the Mothership. First sentences included “You’re not the boss of me,” and “I want my privacy, please.”
She was tough, contained, stubborn, true, quick, observant, thorough—from the very start of life. Unfoolable, she refused all bottles and pacifiers, forcing me to breastfeed until she finally got a cup with her own damned name on it.
From the moment she could write, she liked to bring her universe to order by making lists: Jews We Know; Christians We Know; Ask Mom About. One of her lists, “Rules,” composed in crayon during a particularly disastrous play date, virally migrated to copier rooms across America after I taped them to my office door at work:
- No telling secrets!!!!!
- No whining.
- No phisical contact.
- No trowing shoes.
- Listen to grownups.
- Don’t waist electrisedy.
- Have fun !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Be nice.
- Be polite unless your being funny!
- Always follow theese rules!
My brother-in-law used to begin corporate staff meetings by handing out Rosalie’s Rules. In fact, all of us who took this list to work understood that following Rosalie’s Top Three Rules—No telling secrets. No whining. No physical contact—would pretty much eliminate conflict. And it was sobering to realize that this insight came from a six-year-old.
My six-year-old. I remember her early bodies. Fine white hair standing straight as wheat on her head. Her fat square foot in my palm. The berry birthmark on the side of her nose, fainter each year. Her delicate frame in a white tee-shirt, pink rosebud on the collar. I was watching, admiring, evaluating—every minute, all the time—like the rest of my friends did with their kids. And for a time, in clear violation of Rule #3, I’d catch her up just to dance with me; she’d kiss me as many times as she could count; I’d knead the warm dough of her after a bath, when we played “Make me a pizza!”
At thirteen, however, she reverted to Rule #3, stopped returning hugs and accepting kisses, pulled up the drawbridge of herself and peered down at me from a high parapet. She was polite (Rule #9), but not funny. I couldn’t get a laugh out of her to save my soul (which sorely needed to hear her laugh). It was a long and difficult period, five years of her disciplined, disapproving distance—my girl backing away, still holding my gaze.
In the spirit of Rule #1, I should say that before she was born I feared having a girl, and this is precisely why: this regard. I know, because I was a girl who once regarded her mother from the same high place—with love, but without mercy. I needed my mother in very specific ways (a pumpkin pie, a prom dress, a crisply ironed shirt), but I couldn’t, for a long time, talk to her. Like Rosalie, I was never one of those girls who told their mothers everything. Yet I couldn’t help feeling, over the years of my daughter’s childhood, that I should become one of those mothers.
I simply didn’t know how. Shamed, I listened hard while other mothers filled me in on juicy news my daughter never reported—classroom antics, crackpot teachers, drama-club drama, teen romances, breakdowns, and bad behavior. I accepted their pity—their daughters dished, while I got my updates from the school website—and internalized their unspoken question: Doesn’t she know her own daughter?
In the newly empty house, her wee face on a stray refrigerator magnet can slay me.
3. Use a comma + a conjunction to connect two independent clauses.
So I’ve been getting out more, and today took a walk when no one else thought of it. I had the park to myself, sky quietly blue and the trees starting to riot. A shift in season announced itself in my lungs. As I got into rhythm, I felt my energy rise up to my demand: heart delivering, muscles stretching, bones holding everything aloft. A shift in me, a space in me, opened up. Here I am, I thought: moving, alone, separate.
It was a concrete experience, nothing mystical about it. I’ll turn fifty in a few days. I’ve been a woman for thirty-eight years, a wife for twenty-eight, a mother for twenty. My body, me as object in space, has been caressed, ogled, stretched, shoved, squeezed, sized up, sucked, fucked, fondled, leaned on, burdened, stuffed, starved, examined, cut, drained, cleaned, sullied. There have been many hands upon me, hands I love and want to return to. Hands I slapped back (or should have). But this body, and the mind inhabiting it, has been returned to me, whole, completely capable of its animal and spiritual work: propulsion, going on.
And along with the impatient leaves, this other, thrilling idea came down: No one is watching. I have my privacy, thank you.
Like most empty nesters and the officially middle-aged, I certainly have regrets. But one of them is wishing for the wrong things. I wished for childhood to be perfect for my kids, not one molecule damaged or opportunity ignored. I wished to be perfect myself—more ambitious, more confident, less judgmental. I wished my daughter and I were closer. But I didn’t wish for this—for my sole self returning after a long journey through other lives, other bodies, other selves.
Of course, I wished my kid would get into her dream school, which, in fact, she did. At the freshman convocation, I squinted from the bleachers to pick out the pony tail that belonged to me—my beloved yellow head bobbing in the sea of promise. But the chaplain who delivered the invocation caught me in the act. “These are your children,” he said to the flock of proud parents, who, let’s be honest, felt we, too, had arrived. “But they don’t belong to you. They belong to themselves.”
My daughter has been telling me this very thing, in various ways, her entire life. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, and I suspect that in prior generations everybody knew that, not just six-year-olds. Gathering a new space around her (albeit with a roommate I don’t know much about), I think my daughter has been returned to her self, too, untethered, no one looking over her shoulder, however lovingly. That’s a heady feeling, I know. In the compound sentence of our lives, we’ve both arrived at a comma. Something has gone; something is coming, but we’re going to stop here a moment and, privately, catch our breath.
Don’t judge us, oracles of parenting, friendly rivals I run into at the coffee shop who ask how Rosalie is doing at school. (I don’t know; fine, I guess.) We’ve taken a break from judgment and are composing ourselves for our futures. No secrets. No whining. No throwing shoes.
And in this new, quiet space I hear a faint voice calling from the distance. I love you, now, will you please, shut up and tell me, where the commas go?
KRISTIN KOVACIC is the editor, with Lynne Barrett, of Birth: A Literary Companion . She teaches in the Literary Arts department of Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School and in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Carlow University.