In Memory of My Mother

021 copyMy mother died  five years ago today, almost exactly a year after my brother. (This is the last photo of the two of them together.) To understand the sly humor rather than the pathos behind that sentence, I’ll have to tell you a bit about my mother. She spoke with perfect diction, in unstilted, unaccented English, and she loved words and word games, especially the kind of game where you take a word or phrase and find as many smaller words as possible. For example: in “almost exactly,” you can find most, call, cell, yell, exact, alas, and so on (Me? I hate that game, perhaps because I could never win when I played with her.).

It came as a shock to me when I realized as an adult that my mother was a first generation American who grew up speaking a language other than English. I always knew that, of course, but as a child you accept your mother for who she is without seeing her in the broader context of life. We often think of first generation Americans as people who have a rough time speaking English (or who speak rough English), but neither she nor any of her siblings had a hint of that other language in their voices.

She raised her family with a respect for language. No slang at our house. No “ain’t” or “we got no” or any other example of language slippage. My parents were strict, and we children seldom talked back,  but there was one thing we all argued about with Mother: “almost exactly.” She claimed “exactly” had no degrees. A thing was either exact or almost. The rest of us knew the truth: there is a world of difference between almost and exact. (My brother who is gone was the one who argued most vociferously with her, but of course, he argued vociferously with everyone. He was a bull of a boy and then a man, but never a bully, just strong and adamant about his beliefs.)

Though occasionally I use “almost exactly” in speech, I try not to use it in my writing. It’s one thing to use such a construction when talking and something else entirely to commit it to the permanency of writing, and I don’t want to meet her on a cloud in some afterlife and have her start in on that old argument with me again.

On the other hand, it might be nice.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

8 Responses to “In Memory of My Mother”

  1. mary Says:

    A lovely tribute. Sounds like your first writing instructor 🙂
    My mom died 6 years ago….

  2. Coco Ihle Says:

    Oh, Pat, I think your mom and mine would have gotten on famously. Mine was a stickler too. In fact, I never heard English spoken incorrectly until I went away to college in the Midwest. As I look back, that seems odd, because now, no matter where I go, I find it unusual to hear English spoken or written correctly. Is it just me?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      No, it’s not just you — I seldom hear English spoken correctly now, though like you, once that was all I heard. I wonder if it’s due to televison, where slang seems to hold sway? A general attitude that proper language doesn’t matter? Or just normal slippage? I guess it doesn’t matter, since improper English is the language of the day.

  3. Dorothy Pecoraro Says:

    That’s really beautiful Pat! Wonderful memory and story!

  4. joylene Says:

    This was so special. Your mother reminded me of mine. A lady in every way. Very nice, Pat.

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