How my mother became a pedant…an excerpt from My Time with You Has Been Short but Very Funny

And a grammar song by the great musician


Stream The Grammar Song by Andy McClelland | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

My mother, Angelina Reiser, was born in 1918 of parents who had very recently arrived in Canada from their native Poland and had settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they eked out a subsistence living on a hard-scrabble farm, raising eight children in the process. Although of Polish extraction, Mom was plagued by the Reiser name for she was dubbed a German at a time when first the Kaiser and then Adolf Hitler made anything resembling a Teutonic moniker a distinct liability. So it was that she became known as Jill Raseur, Raizor, or Razor and strove to hide her origins by becoming more English Canadian than Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King. When she married my father in 1945, she nominally shed the Reiser legacy, a process already undertaken through her pursuit of higher education while her sisters dropped out of school early in search of marital bliss.


In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, my parents’ relationship was “a divorce made in heaven,” at a time when conjugal rupture – or rapture –  was barely an option. (They in fact remained shackled to one another “until death did them part,” almost 57 years to be exact.) Over time my mom became increasingly pedantic, more constipated, as it were, in the face of my father’s deliberately provocative boorishness and endemic verbal diarrhea. Dad often described elderly women as “old bats vaccinated with a phonograph needle,” but in fact the brute force of his own verbosity rendered my mom nearly catatonic by the end of her days.


Mom fought back as best she could during those tumultuous years of wedlock deadlock by becoming an insufferably snobbish grammar purist who poured philological vitriol upon my motor-mouthed father, with corrosive spillover upon us kids. Her linguistic stoppages were epic and legendary. In the small Ontario town where my sister and I spent our childhood, the local vernacular was littered with what Mom considered barbaric dialectic droppings. Her primary bugbear was “youse,” routinely trotted out by troglodyte residents as a plural for you. (There’s a certain ironclad logic to this deviant pronominal innovation that totally escaped my mother, the chief of grammar police.) For Mom, use of this grotesque referent was one short step from obscenity and would merit a tongue lashing, if not a mouth-rinsing with soap and water.


Years later, when reading the work of the brilliant Canadian author Alice Munro, I came upon this glorious passage in her story The Beggar Maid:

Billy Pope worked in Tyde’s Butcher Shop. What he talked about most frequently now was the D.P., the Belgian, who had come to work there, and got on Billy Pope’s nerves with his impudent singing of French songs and his naive notions of getting on in this country, buying a butcher shop of his own.

“Don’t you think you can come over here and get yourself ideas,” Billy Pope said to the D.P. “It’s youse workin’ for us, and don’t think that’ll change into us workin’ for youse.” That shut him up, Billy Pope said.


Alice Munro was writing about the exact sort of post-war community in which we grew up! My mom would have smote Billy Pope with her grammatical crusader sword, which she wielded in large part in reaction to carrying the lifelong viciously derogatory label of displaced person, or D.P., which she struggled in vain to scrub away with astringent pedantic lather.


There was a time during my teenage years when my father and I would tease Mom mercilessly for her pretensions, masquerading as grammatical delinquents to make the phonological feculence hit the grammatical fan. My mother simply couldn’t contain herself. If I said, “Andy and me went to a bar,” she’d bark “Andy and I.” And I’d deliberately drive her into a frenzy by eschewing “fewer” for “less.”