- Grandma used commas in a way that mystified me (but I always felt important when she sent me real mail).
- An in-law follows each salutation with a semicolon (but always remembers my birthday).
- An aunt surrounds her signature in quotation marks (but always knows the right thing to say).
- Others perplexingly pepper quotation marks on random phrases throughout their writings (which keeps me laughing—in a good way).
- Many overuse commas and exclamation points as if every moment in life is high-action adventure with unexpected and illogical pauses for breath. (Perhaps this is the right way to live.)
The list could continue for pages.
No doubt, this barrage of unusual usage has formed my views on punctuation. I hold each of these punctuation marks—and the punctuators—dearly in my heart. Yet, despite my overexposure to quotation marks, semicolons, commas, and exclamation points, my ultimate preference in punctuation was born of more than 40 years of life orchestration via sticky notes, all neatly arranged and regularly rotated on my parents’ refrigerator. It is born of the discipline of daily checks for new information and directives as conveyed upon quality-controlled, precision-cut squares mirroring my mother’s unrelenting sense of order. It is born of the triumph of my Sicilian mother overcoming her genetic predisposition to illustrate effusive thought with animated hand gestures by redirecting her communicative energy to a more subdued, adhesive-backed outlet. Here, on my mother’s sticky notes, on nearly every appointment reminder and to-do task throughout a lifetime of refrigerator news, is the em dash.
My mother’s em dashes signify thoughts that stretch beyond the limits of 3x3 sheets covered with precise, perfectly-spaced handwriting that only could be produced by a former first grade teacher who drilled thousands of Catholic school children in penmanship. When I was little, the em dash suggested items to bring to school that were obvious extensions of a list that didn’t quite fit on the note. There were em dashes ending the endless reminders of school and sports events, birthday parties, pediatrics appointments, bowling banquets, and parents’ club meetings. As I grew, it sometimes represented information to be privately understood between my parents as they struggled to communicate amidst our large family’s hectic, tangled schedules. When I was a teenager, the em dash signified undetermined babysitting times, reminders about part-time work schedules, or an admonishing reminder of Mom’s omniscience about her teenagers’ behavior. When I was a young adult, the em dash took the place of surnames of college friends and coworkers my parents had not met. In my young married days, em dashes showed my mother’s unspoken emotion following the jotted birth weight and name of a new grandchild or details about an upcoming celebration of a family member’s latest achievement. Now that we are older, the sticky notes no longer act as the nerve center of a once bustling, overcrowded household, but as joyful proclamations of the results of a life of loving industry—reminders of family picnics, birthdays, weddings, graduations, vacations, visits, and birth weights and names of great-grandchildren for a family that grew far beyond imagining. There is comfort in knowing that the sticky notes of our family life are as reliably on the surface of the fridge as meatballs are inside. And, on each one, there is a heartfelt em dash, indicating a depth of emotion and richness of experience that cannot be expressed in mere words.
The em dash, for me, is beloved because it represents a life’s worth of thoughts and feelings my mother left unwritten—but not uncommunicated—on the perfectly square, pastel yellow pages of her ongoing refrigerator memoirs. My em dash impressions are swaddled in a lifetime of loving and firm guidance and support, encouragement and maternal pride, offered by my mother to our family. Em dash, my love for you—and Mom—is forever—
Written in honor of National Punctuation Day and Mom's 80th birthday. Happy birthday, Mom!
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