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Adjective Order

My relationship with my dead father, told as a grammar lesson

By RosePublished 2 years ago Updated 2 months ago 11 min read
Runner-Up in Dads Are No Joke Challenge
Adjective Order
Photo by R K on Unsplash

Opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, purpose.

I sit in a stuffy, small, dark, rectangular, new, white, British, wooden, bed, sleeping room.

I’m a nice, tired, round, 30-something, pinkish, American, flesh and bone, English-teaching person.

Today’s lesson is on the order of things, adjectives in particular, because there is a set order to adjectives in the English language.

We say “the fatalistic, old, grey-haired man” not “the grey-haired, fatalistic, old man”.

The man in question is my dad, and one could debate whether or not he was truly old when he died, at the age of fifty-six. The average lifespan for men in the United States is seventy-six years. By that reckoning, my dad left the world twenty years too early.

He was a jumble of disorder. I describe him as fatalistic because I can’t wholeheartedly describe him as good or bad.

Growing up, my house was a mess. There was mold growing in the sink full of dirty dishes. My little sister took to hiding a fork and spoon around the house to avoid having to touch the slime building up in the kitchen, which went well until I found her stash and stole them. At one point the two of us both got head lice that didn’t go away for almost two years, leaving us constantly smelling of the chemical lice shampoo that we used once a week, only to get reinfected by our pillows and couch cushions.

I don’t think Dad saw that as his problem. He liked to have fun. Some childhood images of moments spent with him:

- Going to the river with buckets to collect water so we could flush the toilets, after our utilities had been shut off. An adventure!

- My dad playing the harmonica at what I was too young to realize were boozy parties with his friends.

- Getting sent home from school with head lice on my tenth birthday. My dad let me eat the entire box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins I’d brought to share with the class, then took me to a flea market and bought me (for reasons known best to him) tons of used thermoses to play with.

- The snakes, lizards, frogs, and salamanders my dad would buy me as pets. One frog died because I put its cage in the sun and forget it. A salamander died because we put it in the basement while we were bug bombing the house, and by the time we remembered it, it was a skeleton. An iguana died of constipation after I fed it a dead worm.

My dad knew how to create experiences. I felt happy around him. He had a sense of humor.

Here’s a funny story:

We kept a colony of twenty or so outdoor cats. My dad trained them to come to him whenever he sang the theme tune for Meow Mix brand cat food. The cats propagated rapidly, so we were always looking for good homes for the kittens. One morning, as my dad was about to set off in his tan colored van for a craft fair, he asked my sister and I to catch some kittens for him to give away. Most of the kittens were too fast for us, but we managed to nab one fluffy tabby— one with a big bite mark on its leg.

At the fair, my sister and I went from person to person, trying to tempt them with our adorable kitten. People all wanted to hold the kitten, kiss the kitten, and stroke the kitten. Finally, a couple agreed to take the precious baby kitten into their loving home.

It had rabies.

The girls who had been carrying him around were mostly anonymous.

There was a statewide campaign to “find the man in the tan van” and anybody who had come in contact with him. The news reports emphasized that the goal was not to punish the man, but to make sure that his family received medical treatment before it was too late.

Animal control took all the cats away, because chances were that if one was rabid, they all were. Everybody in my family got a full course of rabies shots. My dad, now locally infamous, had a custom T-shirt made, featuring a bedraggled looking cartoon cat and the words “FREE KITTENS” in letters that curved across his chest like a rainbow.


In fact, maybe this is all too amusing to be included in an essay on adjective order, a notoriously dry topic. Here’s an exercise. Rewrite the following jumbled sentences correctly:

(Remember, it should go: Opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, purpose.)

1. The young, lice-infested, little, cute girl gorged on sweet, jelly-filled, small donuts.

2. The rabid, soft, fluffy, news-worthy, lovable kitten was put to sleep.

3. My dead, funny, irreverent, adventurous dad was a great harmonica player.

After my parents separated (at the start of fifth grade) and eventually divorced (at the end of sixth or start of seventh) my dad became my hero. The novelty of getting to see him elevated his importance.

My family (my mom, my sister, and I) moved from Connecticut to Maine. We stopped having lice and started living normally. Our new home was pristine. We weren’t allowed to keep pets.

Right before my parents got divorced, my dad moved to Maine as well, to try and get the family back together. His house had mattresses on the floor instead of beds, and he didn’t have a refrigerator. During the cold Maine winters, he’d put perishable food items out on his window ledge, and when it got warmer he’d just let them perish. He got me pet rats, which stayed at his house only.

When it became clear that my mom wasn’t going to stay with him, he became depressed. He described depression to me in the most kid friendly way, which I would really encourage anybody with children to steal. He said he was like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Easy to understand and even kinda insightful, right?

I was at the point in my life when I was at my most obsessive. An interest in Star Trek had taken over my entire personality, and I pursued the topic with the zeal of a Klingon and the relentlessness of a Borg. I had a school appointed psychologist quit on me because I talked about it too much, and my mom enacted a no Star Trek at the dinner table rule.

My dad indulged the whole Star Trek thing. When I visited, he’d take me to Blockbuster and let me rent either Star Trek: First Contact or Star Trek: Generations. He’d watch the movies over and over again with me, and let me talk about them as much as I wanted. He scoured Goodwill for Star Trek related things to purchase for me, and had surprisingly good luck. The best thing he ever got me was a life-sized cardboard Borg cutout.

Dad was sad, but he tried to make his visits memorable.

Grammar exercise:

The sad, not-yet-absent, downtrodden father gave his nerdy, talkative, fat daughter what she wanted.

Making grammar exercises about adjective order isn’t easy. I find myself wanting to throw in too many opinion words and not enough of the other kinds. Also, whether or not something is an opinion is sort of a matter of opinion. Like, is it an opinion to describe me tweenage self as “nerdy”. Could it also be a material? Is “fat” a shape or a physical quality? Then there’s the matter of “material” and “purpose”. How am I supposed to shoehorn those into grammar exercises based around describing my relationship with my father?


I don’t get to assign a purpose to my dad. To me, he was a parent, but not exactly a successful one. To say that being my father was his purpose and then deem him insufficient erases the fact that he was a human, first and foremost. He had his own struggles. I know he cared about me and did his best with what he had.

In terms of material, I guess I’d say my dad was made up of flesh, blood, aspirations, and ethanol. He was an alcoholic.

High school was weird. After the divorce was official, Dad began a series of disappearances and reappearances that would last for the rest of the time I knew him. He’d go months upon months without contacting me. He was uncontactable. When he showed up, he’d try so hard to give me anything I wanted. When I shed my Star Trek obsession to throw all of my passion upon the altar of musical theatre, Dad took me to see my first Broadway show (Cats), and also my second, third, and fourth (Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables). After Les Miserables, he explained to me how Cosette was a bad person, who had stolen Marius from Eponine, just like my step father had stolen my mom from him. Odd in retrospect, but I was just happy that somebody else was moved by the song On My Own.

Broadway aside, my dad also took my sister and I camping, shopping, to Japanese restaurants with Hibachi tables, and to amusement parks. It was as though he only wanted to give us the best of himself, and saved up his personal resources to make sure that was what we got.

College was weirder.

Sometimes my dad lived in my grandma’s basement, in a filthy room that smelled of beer. He let me see this, because I was an adult now.

Sometimes my dad was homeless. At one point he met me for my birthday with tickets for Dracula the Musical, my favorite at the time. He didn’t tell me until the show was over that he didn’t have a place to live.

My dad told me that we could tell each other anything, then drunkenly told me every bad thing that any member of my family had ever done, not sparing himself. I told him, in turn, that I’d been sexually abused as a child by an “uncle” of mine, one of his drinking buddies. Dad later went to stay with that drinking buddy for a while when he offered him a room. He told me that he’d talked everything over with his friend, and he’d apologized and promised to never interact with me again. Considering I was twenty-one by this time, and this guy was into eleven-year-olds, it’s not like he was making much of a sacrifice.

My dad disappeared.

He reappeared.

He disappeared again.

Once, after months of radio silence, he called me out of no where and asked me to dinner. I was at a party and mad that he could find me whenever he wanted but I never knew where he was, so I told him no. He tried to jump off a bridge and ended up being taken to the hospital by police before he could hurt himself.

I can’t make a grammar exercise out of this.


You know.

Life moved on. I moved to China for fun and profit. It was fun and profitable. Before I left, my dad and I had an uneventful lunch together. I don’t remember a word of what was said, but they were the last he ever spoke to me.

Over the course of three years, my dad drank himself into oblivion while I hung out in the Middle Kingdom teaching primary school (adjective order was always one of my favorite lessons. Don’t know how I managed to make it depressing here).

I got back home to see my dad on his death bed. His skin was yellow and he was wearing a diaper full of blood. He’d lost consciousness, but apparently he had a nice conversation with hallucinatory versions of my mom, sister, and I before I arrived.

I’ve written essays before about the nuts and bolts of watching my dad die from alcohol related total organ failure. I don’t feel like writing about that now.

I want to write about Fun Home (the Musical, not the book, though the book is also good).

Fun Home is my absolute top favorite musical. The best I’ve ever seen. Amazing. It deals with the intertwined lives of Alison Bechdel, a lesbian cartoonist, and her gay father Bruce, who killed himself.

After I saw it for the first time, I tried to explain to my friend Anne how I’d never related to another piece of theatre so hard.

“Because you’re a writer?” Anne had asked. I told her no. I don’t even really consider myself a writer, just somebody who passes time writing.

“Because you’re gay?” Anne had asked. I also told her no. To be honest, I’ve never had much interest in dating.

I explained to Anne that the dichotomy between Alison and her father Bruce reminded me so much of my relationship with my dad that my legs were shaking as I left the theatre.

Unlike Bruce Bechdel, my dad wasn’t gay or especially cultured. Both my dad and the guy who I’ve inwardly labeled as his singing counterpart were in immense pain. Bruce killed himself. My dad technically didn’t commit suicide, but he made choices that he knew would lead to his death. He’d been told by doctors at the onset of his illness that if he didn’t drink at all, he’d have months or maybe more than a year to live even with all the damage he’d done. He knew I was planning to visit home and that wanted to see him. He went on a bender a week before I was scheduled to arrive, and I only got hold his hand while he died. Maybe he didn’t know I was there. I ask myself every day how deliberate that binge was.

In Fun Home, the character of Alison is played by three actresses. One is Alison as a child, one is Alison as a college student, and one is the adult Alison looking back on and writing about her life. There’s a song in the musical called “Telephone Wire”. This song is the last conversation between Alison and her dad. It takes place while Alison is in college, but at the start of the song, Adult Alison taps College Alison on the shoulder and takes her place for the scene, reliving the moment. The song cumulates in these lines:

“Telephone wire

Stuck too fast

Telephone wire

Make this not the past

This car ride

This is where this has to happen

There must be some other chances

There’s a moment I’m forgetting

When you tell me you see me”

I find myself reliving moments with my dad, looking for significance that might not be there. I think about my last lunch with my dad. I can picture a New York City street as we said goodbye, with crowds of people and yellow taxis. Why can’t I remember what we talked about? Was it that insignificant? Did he tell me that he was proud of me or that he loved me? Logically he must have. I think he was tired. I think he was all ready quite far gone.

There’s this one line in Fun Home that I totally nerd out to. Bruce is describing a guy he hooked up with as a kid. Noris Jones. He describes Noris as having “black, wavy hair”. It’s a tiny detail, transparent to people who don’t study grammar, but the adjective order is wrong. This creates dissonance.

My dad was a dissonant kind of guy. I say that lovingly.

He is a dead, grey, youngish-old, flesh-blood-and-ethanol, fatalistic father.

I’m a questioning, alive, English teaching, oldish-young, woman who writes to try and clear the dissonance and find the understanding behind it.


About the Creator


This is just a hobby.

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Comments (6)

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  • Shirley Belk6 months ago

    S Rose, this is one of the most well done and heart wrenching stories I've ever read. Again, I find myself relating to you through aspects in our lives. After reading it, I thought you must have found some semblance of healing from writing it. I love the fact that your father cared and valued you enough to get into your world and celebrated your passions. I loved how you "studied" him and learned from him and his weaknesses. I think your father gave you the wings and courage to be able to fly off to foreign places and continue to pursue your passions. Thank you for the truth and intimacy of your words, no matter what the grammatical order.

  • It is so difficult to speak to our past in the dichotomy of our present. Well done!

  • Honest. Brilliant. A well-deserved win. Congratulations. I subscribed and look forward to reading more!

  • Babs Iverson2 years ago

    Courageous & impressive story. Hearted & subscribed. Congratulations on the runner-up win.

  • C. H. Richard2 years ago

    Thank you for sharing. You give an honest portrayal of your dad that is told with love and compassion. Well done. I left a heart and subscribed❤️

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