“He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

At last a student who can spell “mother,” and chooses to; but lo and behold, he can’t think of the word “father,” evidently. Does he intend to suggest that the subject of his sentence (alas, I have forgotten whom my student is writing about, and a hasty Google for “writer” and “alcoholic father” brings up an amazing number of possibilities!) was closer to his father than to his mother? Or possibly my student himself is closer to his father than to his mother. Certainly the use of an intimate term for the he-parent and a formal term for the she-parent raises this possibility. For the famous author in question, we can then picture dear old Dad lolling around the house in an alcoholic stupor but accessible to Sonny, and Mother out of the house day and night, a virtual stranger.

The tale is sad with or without the possible parental preference. But the sentence is sadder still.

The boy grew up until the age of eight. That’s what the sentence says. What he did thereafter is left for us to imagine. Did he arrest his development, remaining intellectually or emotionally eight years old for the rest of his life? We have to assume his physical growth was not arrested: even the death of both parents isn’t trauma sufficient to achieve such a corporal result. Probably he continued to grow up, but where and how are not addressed.

And WHO was at the age of eight, come to think of it? A comma sits there in the sentence but is being asked to do more than it is capable of (possibly too young also?). I know my student hoped the comma would enable the reader to see that parents died when the BOY was eight; but the nouns preceding “until the age of eight” are “dad” and “mother,” not “boy” (he). The reader is therefore free to assume that the parents died at the age of eight. If they were parents at the age of eight, I’d say they had every right to drink, or to wander around the neighborhood. Without the comma the sentence would have to be read to say that the mother was “almost never home until the age of eight,” and she would therefore certainly be a little kid, with a husband probably about the same age. My student flings in that comma like a tiny life-preserver for his sentence—but it doesn’t really look like a life-preserver, being only part of a circle, and I’m not sure I can let it succeed.

To be fair, I must admit that “until the age of eight” is an adverbial prepositional phrase (answers “when” about the verb) and therefore properly modifies “grew up”; thus the boy is eight when his parents die. Of course I knew what he meant, and his grammar actually means that too.

But the word order distracts my perfect parsing—”grew up” is SO far away from “until the age of eight,” and the verb phrase “was never home” is just itching to be modified by the phrase that follows it.  And “when they both died” clearly does refer to “dad and “mother,” and “age of eight” comes right after “mother” and therefore seems to modify her as well. A reader encountering this sentence for the first time is fully justified in getting lost in it, and imagining little kids (one a wino) parenting (!) somebody who actually grows up; he will walk beside their tiny coffins and then get on with his life.

Thursdays are always confusing: so near to, and yet so far from, the weekend.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““He grew up with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was almost never home, until the age of eight when they both died.”

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