Beginning Latin

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I was just looking for a job. Instead, I found a Latin teacher. He is 91 and has memory loss so we move along at just the right pace. My teacher and I share something. He, who is in hospice and me, who is still trying to shake off a divorce, have the same kind of mind. The recognition is immediate. 

We have a matching excitement when we talk about words. In our speech, we’re each so careful to choose words with an exactness of meaning that will pull behind them the whole of the story that has come before. What’s the point of talking if there is no surprise, if the words and the rhythms and the ideas are predictable?   

On the evenings I visit, while I stack all his books and papers in all their varied sizes into tidy piles, he wheels himself to his spot at the kitchen table. He takes off his red beret and the gloves he wears to protect the skin on his hands from unexpected contact with doorways. Sometimes he’ll drink coffee. Sometimes orange juice. Sometimes he’ll eat a piece of chocolate. Then I pull up my chair. We find blank paper and pens and begin our lessons. When we talk about declensions, which we must, I wonder how to call back all the rules of grammar that flew from my head years ago.

“Nominative”, he says, “He ran.”

He corrects me when I say dah-tive instead of day-tive, and says, “I give you an orange.”

“Ablative”, he says, “The color blue is given to winter.”

“The color blue is given to winter,” I say, and I am stopped by the beauty of this image.

We pause to talk about this, how words can hold an image, can so easily shift meaning, can turn ablative into dative. Blue was a gift given to Winter at a time when Winter was colorless. And who was the bearer of blue? This is how our lessons progress.

On one of my pieces of paper, where I’ve written the words locare and remaneo, I’ve also written invenio. From there, I’ve drawn a line linking it to the phrase, It comes therefore it is found. For days this excites me. I think about an essay I will write about finding, about losing. Of course I will mention David Wagoner’s poem Lost. Chill out. “The forest knows where you are.” And maybe I’ll tie in I once was lost but now I’m found and how it must be grace, that which is completely outside of our control, that comes to rest upon us. We’re still in the forest. It hasn’t changed. But we’ve come to recognize something, a truth or a rightfulness of place, like I know I’m supposed to be at the table with my folded sheet of paper and my pen working on declensions. I recognize, too, that I need this because I’ve been brought low with the stories I pull behind me. My teacher does nothing but build me up, even for the smallest things.

One night I will say, “It’s 7:10. Find something to read, short though, if you want me to help you get ready for bed before I go.”

“I see what you did just now” he says. I freeze. I wait to be corrected for my lack of social decorum, reminded of my bluntness that is like mud for so many people.

Instead, he says, “Tremendous. What you did with time. That was tremendous.”

Only once do I remember he seemed irritated with me. He was telling the story of one winter when he and his dad were returning from getting supplies in Michigan, North Dakota. A blizzard, fat with white darkness and black wind, blew in. The team of horses was straining. “We were so close to home,” he said, “when the pole broke.”  I just looked at him. I couldn’t conjure an image. I couldn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. I don’t know if the horses bolted. I don’t know if the wagon they pulled was left behind. I don’t know what happened between the pole breaking and the time they reached the farmhouse that his mother had kept warm and lighted. I wish I did.

It will happen that his memory loss will move along quicker than my learning. He will begin by forgetting my name. He’ll call me Vanessa or Pricilla, but mostly he’ll call me My Bud.  And our conversations will be conducted through image. They will become puzzles. When he tells me about the wheelbarrows at the factory, he’s talking about the hospital and the wheelchairs. When he mentions the man who is a marble, I know he’s talking about the man I’ve seen sometimes when I walk into the building, the one who is round and solid, bald and smooth. I never tire of this image talk.

There were times, it seemed, he knew his mind was dividing. When he said to me, “You have a great appreciation for accepting things that aren’t there”, he might have been thinking about the worms he believed were infesting his body. He wanted a specimen and he’d gently pick at his skin to coax one to the surface. He wanted to watch its behavior. This intrigued me, the matter-of-fact way he treated this hallucinatory infestation.

Now, our lessons involve a lot of nodding off. Reading has become stuttering.

I ask him, “Is this memory loss like having a blank sheet of paper pulled behind your eyes?”

“Thank you for asking,” he says, and forgets to answer.

I tell him I’m going to write something about him. He smiles. I know I won’t have many more chances to sneak past that blank sheet of paper behind his eyes. So I tell him I want to write around the Latin word for found, that without that word being translatable to It comes, the whole essay will be hollow. I want him to confirm. He looks at me squarely, alertly, and says, “You don’t need a translatable word. You need a translatable idea.” And I realize the idea I had was all wrong. This isn’t about finding and losing, losing and finding. It’s about the times when someone comes into your life like a sweet mother. Alma Mater.