Verbal misuse

February 13, 2007

It’s 3:30 this morning. Myowndaughter had a tough time going to bed, finally nodding off around 8:30. She woke up at midnight. She woke up again at 3. Her sexy mom has gone to check on her each time, staying a little while until Mod drifts off again. She’s there now.

I walk into Mod’s room to see if there’s anything I can do (as if).

That’s when I hear it. It makes me cringe. At 3:30 in the morning it makes me cringe.

“Lay down, Mommie. Lay down. No, Mommie, lay down.”

Lay down?!

Lay down?!

Lay?! Down?!
Where does this kid pick up this kind of language? She’s not in child care. She doesn’t hang out with the playground thugs. She’s not whiling away the hours in front of a TV, ever. She reads books … well, you know. We read books to her. She loves books. She’s very literary. She’s very language-oriented. She used sign language before she could talk. When she started talking she very creatively linked words together, like a lot of kids, to make her point: “Abby. … mmmm Biiiiig. Happy.” “You want to throw Abby the dog a birthday party with a great big cake?” “Yes.” (She speaks English like I speak Spanish.)

Her father’s a writer! Hello?

Lay down? I can’t believe it. It took all I had to keep from shouting, “Lie down. Lie down. Say it with me now, lie.” I knew that would have kept the kid awake, maybe even startled her, and could have landed her in our bed, and all sleep goes out the window when that happens.

She gets it from her mother. From Sexymom. Sexymom, sexy as she is, was not reared in a family that scrutinizes every spoken syllable. As a young boy, if I slipped and, say, forgot to use a possessive pronoun preceding the gerand form of a verb, a wrath of criticism flew from my father’s mouth, damning me to a life in the gutter if I kept up that talk. At dinner we would diagram, aloud, with our fingers in the air, the sentences of entire arguments about the influence of cultural identity on late-20th century residential architecture, communal behavior and domestic norms and the increasingly urgent need to erect legal and social barriers around the commonwealth and all that is Southern and good from northern invaders (my step-mother is Virginian).

Sexymom’s father was not an immigrant. My old man was born in Mexico. When his parents arrived in Houston they quickly began the process of assimilation. English was part of my dad’s ticket into Anglicanism, part of the mannerly and intellectual uniform he wore to distinguish himself from the common Mexican. Mastering English meant my father could talk his way into or out of anything — ask any one of his three ex-wives.

My father-in-law, however, was American, born and bred. He didn’t need the English language as an identity crutch. He grew up on a farm in western Kentucky, growing tobacco and corn and raising hogs. He earned a master’s degree and had a very successful career that’s provided a comfortable retirement … he worked with farmers.

Child development researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered recently that fathers influence their children’s language development — vocabulary, complexity of language, etc. — more than mothers do, despite the parents having similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

This offered some comfort at the time. I can’t even understand my Sexywife half the time, she talks in sentence fragments that might or might not be interrelated. And, she says “lay down.”

As a teen I rebelled from perfect English skills. I can’t spell worth a dam. I started to notice that despite some people’s language skills, they still survive, even thrive, in society.But even now the old man takes me down a notch if I dare to dangle a modifier.

But I did become a writer, and not by accident. Too much of this heretical linguistic influence could endanger my work (there’s probably examples crept into this post!). But even more harmful, it could corrupt my child, turn her against me, in the wee hours of the morning, looking for parental comfort from someone who’ll lay by her side.

I can’t take it! Lay! Lay! Why can’t I say “lay down?!” All I want is to talk good and have someone love me!
I take all this in, take a few deep breaths. I back away down the hall, make my way back to bed, and feel the callow emotions rapidly rise from their shallowly submersed subconscience shelf and linger long enough to prick like a thorn the tender trills of longing and let bleed these tiny drops of sorrow.


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