It was the summer of 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Our forty mile move in east-central Illinois early that summer from Champaign to Danville went smoothly, as naturally disruptive moves go. My wife Ellen began right away in organizing her principal’s office, getting acquainted with staff, and hiring teachers to fill remaining vacancies at Danville High School. At summer’s end 200 faculty and staff and 2,000 students arrived. Beyond her normal duties, she oversaw the final phase of construction of a major new wing to the school. The summer flew by.
While Ellen was shifting into high gear that summer, I downshifted to a slower pace to savor the summer in a way that I never had before. I organized our garage, put up a basketball goal above the garage door and shot baskets until my arms ached, unpacked books and papers in my study, hung bird feeders from towering oak trees behind the house, and sat on our screened-in back porch overlooking a wide, wooded ravine as I read books for pure pleasure to the tunes of songbirds.
Squirrels found the bird feeders about as fast as the birds did, and the competition began between the birds and squirrels, and between the squirrels and me. The squirrels knocked so many seeds on the ground with their acrobatics that a lot of the birds had to eat seeds from the ground rather than from the feeders. Occasionally a mad blue jay would drive the squirrels away for a few minutes, but the squirrels were more persistent and usually got their way. I made baffles to prevent squirrels from coming down vertical wires to eat upside down from the feeders. Then the squirrels learned to jump horizontally from nearby small trees to grab onto the feeders below the baffles. So I moved the feeders often, making new baffles, stringing high horizontal wires between tree trunks for hanging feeders so squirrels would have to walk gingerly over a small, slippery wire to get to suspended feeders. This game was endlessly entertaining.
One morning after Ellen had headed to work, I sat with a cup of coffee and The New York Times spread out on the table on that screened-in porch. Birds were singing in a beautiful chorus as the squirrels were performing amazing acrobatics. The phone rang in the kitchen and I stepped inside the door to answer it. It was Ellen’s mom Madeline calling from Chicago. She said,
“Good morning! Whatcha doing, Earl?”
“Oh, sitting on the back porch, watching squirrels, drinking coffee . . .”
Madeline interrupted, laughing in delirium,
“Watching squirrels drinking coffee?”
We laughed together for several minutes over this. I tried to explain that there was a comma in that sentence between “squirrels” and “drinking,” a bit of a pause, but Madeline would hear none of it. The joke was too good to be explained away, so we went with it and laughed enough that morning to keep us going for the whole day.
The next time Madeline and her husband came to visit she brought me a gift in a small box. Inside it was a set of four miniature cups and saucers for the squirrels to use for drinking coffee along with me. We kept these cups and saucers on display on that back porch for the entire time we lived in Danville. All of this became a running joke between Madeline and me for the rest of her life. She loved words, loved to write letters, loved to do crossword puzzles, and loved to laugh.
As a writer, I have been reminded of this story often as I decide when to use or not use a comma in a sentence. In that regard, the story illustrates for me the power of a comma, and it reminds me of my favorite high school teacher, Peggy Ferrell in the English Department. She would like this story. I’ll have to send it to her.