Searching for Latin
March 11, 2013
I want to understand why you loved Latin more than people. I had been trying to reconnect with you for years, enrolling in one Latin class after another, resuscitating my declensions and mental agility to parse convoluted syntax, even dedicating my senior undergraduate paper, Ovid’s Voice in Exile, to your memory. I never told you, though, that by that point I had to resort to reading with a facing English translation next to me. My Latin had become an approximation of language, a series of distant memories of adjective and noun endings.
For two years, I spent Thursday afternoons sitting at your dining room table, with Horace or Virgil between us, and the only questions I ever asked you were the gender or meaning of a particular noun. Every so often, you punctuated grammar explanations with an anecdote about growing up with a hateful grandmother in Brantford, an hour’s drive from Toronto but a universe away. Were there others like you, Brantford students, who favored Greek and Latin over high school parties?
I drive past your old condo building on Broadview Avenue on my way to my parents’ house and back home again. I consider it luck that I don’t have to see your windows, since they all face the Don Valley and I never have to confront the fact that you’re no longer standing in your dining room, drinking beer warmed in the microwave from a white mug with an uppercase P on it.
“It’s my favorite mug,” you once told me. “Do you get it? ”
I stared at the P.
“The Latin P is for Payne and the Greek ‘Rho’ is for Ron,” you said, smiling to yourself, marveling at the fact that a P could have a “p” sound in English and an “r” sound in Greek, and that you had found a mug with both of your initials written in one letter. Ron Payne. “Come on, you knew that!”
Whenever I come across a capital P now, I wonder how many people know that a P is also an R in disguise.
You announced that you were leaving school one day in the beginning of May, when I was in your grade 11 Latin class. A medical emergency, you said. I watched as your yellowed, calloused fingers combed through your thinning white hair, and wondered how old you were. When you died, two and a half years later, I deduced from your obituary that you had then been sixty-one.
When I told my parents that you were going straight into surgery for advanced cancer, they informed me that I would visit you in the hospital. And one day, without my knowing, my mother called your room to assure you that I wanted to continue reading Latin with you, and would it be ok if I visited you at home once you were discharged.
“But I don’t have time to see him,” I said
“You’ll make time. Two hours a week is nothing to give a dying man,” my mother told me.
“I don’t need the extra Latin practice. I’m getting a good mark.”
“I already said you’d be there next Thursday. Believe me, you’d regret this in a few years if you didn’t see him.”
There is no arguing with my mother. She often speaks to me in her prophetic, oracular conditional mood, informing me exactly what could happen a few years from now, if I fail to heed her advice. She knew nothing about Latin and had never even been to Rome, but she must have gleaned, from the parent-teacher interview she had with you, that two hours of parsing through Latin texts with a somewhat enthusiastic student would bring you more pleasure than an infinite number of cans of chicken soup—the only other recipe she knew for curing illness.
We settled into a routine, and by our second meeting, I was comfortable with your slurred speech, and the drool hanging down your scarred chin, still raw from surgery, didn’t faze me. Every Thursday, I sat at your dining room table from 4 to 6 pm, staring down at the bed of trees below us when I needed a moment to remember a word. You taught me to read dactylic hexameter and how to distinguish long syllables from short ones. I can no longer read Virgil, but to this day I remember that the fifth foot in a line of dactylic hexameter is always a dactyl—long, short, short—and the sixth can end in either a long or short syllable. Whenever I pass your building, I see a string of syllables in my mind, and find myself separating it into feet, sorting through long and short syllables and drawing caesuras.
You’d offered me your books, and I said I’d take them eventually, next time. From your eighteenth floor dining room windows, autumn resembled a multicolored cushion, resting beneath us, and I was positive your library would wait.
You lived alone your entire life, and yet you always bought two subscriptions to the opera. You took me to the opera and slept through Don Giovanni because it was right after your chemo treatment. You didn’t notice that next to you, I too slept through the entire second act. Or if you noticed, you said nothing. You traveled to Russia the summer before you died, when you had a momentary glimmer of strength, and came back enthralled by the churches. You showed me photos of wooden cathedrals in Kizhi built without a single nail, of monasteries near Moscow, of the famous onion domes that punctuated the Golden Ring. You had me translate a few brochures from Russian. You didn’t ask me where I had been born. I didn’t volunteer the information.
That same summer, I documented my first trip to Europe alone by sending you postcards from Paris and the Loire valley. I might have quoted Horace, might have provided you with historical facts about one medieval church or other, politely enquired about your health, joked about your tepid beer, alluded to your evil granny (because I knew the comment would invite a smile), or embarrassed you by constructing a hopeless sentence in Latin, with the endings all garbled.
“Thanks for the postcards,” you said. “Your Latin is peculiar, but you sure write well in English.” I expected you to go through my postcards with a red marker, the way you would have done if you were still my teacher. Instead, you added, “you pack a lot into a postcard.”
One day, while I was scanning a line of Virgil to find an adjective to match the noun’s ending, you told me that Thursday had become your favorite day of the week. “Because you’re here,” you said. I didn’t respond, and must have stared out the window, at the trees below; autumn had definitively given in to winter.
“Why did you decide to become a Latin teacher? ”
“I wanted to make sure I’d never have to return to Brantford.” I don’t know if those were your exact words, but it’s what I remember hearing. I was in the process of applying to university and was eager to carve out a new existence for myself. I read everything I heard as an escape narrative.