Tomorrow is National Punctuation Day. According to Wikipedia,
Founded by Jeff Rubin in 2004, National Punctuation Day simply promotes the correct usage of punctuation. Rubin encourages appreciators of correct punctuation and spelling to send in pictures of errors spotted in everyday life.
On the eve of the day when we contemplate proper punctuation, I have an example of what not to do. Of course, there is a back story to this cautionary tale.
My grandma’s house had five bedrooms. After her husband (my grandfather) died and her youngest child (my father) left the nest, my grandmother found herself with more bedrooms than she needed. She decided she’d rent the extra bedrooms to single men and make a few extra bucks.
I’m not sure when my grandma started renting the rooms. My parents married in 1966, although I think my dad left home shortly after he graduated from high school in 1963. The renters were in my grandmother’s house throughout my early childhood in the 1970s. I don’t remember when exactly they left, but sometime in my teenage years, the extra rooms stood empty again.
I don’t know if renting those rooms fell within the laws of the small town where my grandmother’s house stood. If she had some sort of license from city hall, I never saw it. If a health inspector ever came by to check for violations, I never heard talk of it. Maybe in those days no bureaucracy cared if a widow rented out her extra rooms to single men looking for basic accommodations that wouldn’t cost too much.
The front door of my grandma’s house faced the street. The renters used the front door to access their living spaces. My grandmother’s friends and family entered her home through the side door that opened into her kitchen.
The front door opened into a narrow, dark hallway. Room #1 was on one side of the hallway; room #2 was directly across from it. Room #3 was behind Room #2. Sometimes when I stayed with my grandma, I’d go into the renters’ rooms with her and help her change the sheet which had been dried on the clothesline in the backyard and smelled of sunshine and grass. On the days we went quietly into the front of the house, the men had deserted the area in favor of work, but I still felt their presence like ghosts moving through their quiet room.
The rooms were sparsely furnished with a straight-backed chair and a twin bed. Clothes were stored in a small chest-of-drawers and a narrow closet. I don’t remember seeing a television in any of the rooms. What did the men living there do for entertainment after working all day? Perhaps they read books or listened to music on the radio. Perhaps they sat quietly and daydreamed of better days when they could afford homes and families of their own,.
The hallway from the front door opened into the common area. A refrigerator stood against the side wall; a table was pushed up against the wall the renters shared with my grandma’s kitchen. A couple of straight-backed chairs accompanied the table. The common area offered little comfort or color. To the right of the table was the door to the bathroom the men shared.
Of course, there were rules. The renters were not allowed to eat or drink in their bedrooms, only in the dining room. As someone who has rented rooms in people’s homes for short term stays, this rule blows me away. I can’t imagine being told I couldn’t eat in my own living space. Of course, I’m sure my grandmother was worried about spilled food attracting bugs (and in the Deep South, by “bugs,” we always meant roaches), but any insects attracted to the dining room would soon move through the house anyway.
The second rule was about ladies. No ladies were allowed (or “aloud,” as my grandmother spelled it). My grandma was no fool. She knew ladies in the house would lead to s-e-x, and as a good Catholic, I’m sure she wanted to limit the amount of sin occurring under her roof. If ladies were kept outside, the incidents of sex would be greatly reduced.
To make the rules clear, my grandmother made a sign.
In her defense, my grandmother didn’t speak any English until she went off to first grade and was forced to learn the language. I think she only stayed in school for a few years, and she certainly didn’t graduate from high school. I understand her grasp on punctuation and spelling was weak at best. But even as little kids, my sibling and I knew the comma use on that sign was out of control.
It’s been suggested to me that perhaps because the words ended up so close together on the sign, my grandma used the commas to mark the space between words. Perhaps that theory reflects what happened, but I think it’s a too generous reading of the situation. I think my grandma, unsure of where to properly place any necessary commas, took a “more is better” approach to punctuating her sign. If one comma was good, ten commas must have seemed even better.
My dad liked to use commas excessively too, although I never saw him go quite as overboard as his mother did with the sign in question. I tend to sprinkle commas at a rate most textbooks would find a bit liberal, as does my sibling. Could excessive comma use be a genetic trait? Is it growing weaker because of the introduction of genes that don’t have the markers for excessive comma use, or has the educational system done its job of nurturing us beyond our comma prolific nature?
In my teenage years the renters departed one by one and were not replaced. The last to go was Mr. Jim, one day too old to live alone in the room he’d called home for decades. Whether he went to live with a family member or to spend his last days in a nursing home, I don’t remember. Neither can I recall whey my grandmother stopped replacing the renters when they left. Maybe the town ordinances changed, or may my grandma grew too old herself and could no longer change the sheets alone or feel safe with strangers on the other side of a door unlocked with a skeleton key.
Once the renters left, my sibling and I were allowed to take showers in the bathroom in the front of the house, as the bathroom in the main part of the house only had a tub. My sibling and I really needed a shower to wash our hair properly, so we preferred the front bathroom for our morning ablutions on the weekends we spent at our grandmother’s house. It was during one of these trips to the front bathroom that my sibling snapped the photo of the sign. This was back in the days of film, when by the the time you found out your photo was off center of the edge was cut off, it was too late. Neither my sibling nor I ever got another chance to snap a photo of the sign.
I wonder what happened to the sign. Surely when my grandma’s house was sold after she went to live in a nursing home, the sign was put in the shed or thrown in the trash. I sure do with I had that sign, a reminder of my childhood, a family legacy more precious than gold.
To learn more about National Punctuation Day, visit the official (?) website.
My sibling took the photo. I’m using it with permission.