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The Literary Heart of Life

I HADN'T seen my favorite college professor and mentor since 1977. On that occasion, I had handed in my senior literary theory paper and headed to the airport for a three-week stay on a kibbutz in Israel. I missed my graduation ceremony and the Romance languages award he was to have surprised me with. Now 16 years and four children later, I was at last to see him again.

The thought of our trip to that familiar college campus and into his scholarly presence made me feel excited, but nervous.

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The last paper I had written was entitled ``Morada Del Cielo: El Viaje Sonoro Hasta Las Regiones Luciente'' (``Mansion of Heaven: The Sonorous Journey to the Glowing Regions''). How elevated it all seemed now as I remembered contemplating the life of the Spanish Renaissance monk and poet Fray Luis de Leon and his exalted vision of a transcendent life on earth. Little did I realize as I set off to experience the ``real world'' that I would be engrossed for years in some very down-to-earth concerns.

What would I talk about when this single-minded illustrious professor and I met outside the realm of classroom and literary critique? Would he find me boring and prosaic?

After the kibbutz, where air-raid drills punctuated the silky breezes of the banana fields, I went to Idaho to work alongside Mexican migrant workers on a potato farm. There, my literary Castilian was put to use translating bosses' orders into functional Spanish for the Mexicans who were part of my work crew.

The dark potato cellars where we sorted ripe spuds from green dud potatoes was a far cry from the ivy-covered brick walls of my old college, but Fray Luis might have found symbolism there, too. The sharing of warm tortillas and hot drinks at lunchtime transformed the earthy underground drabness into a festive Spanish tertulia.

The boss would laugh each time he found that I was unfamiliar with the most basic of farmhand chores, such as the correct way of putting on rubber work gloves. He asked repeatedly, ``What did they teach you in that college anyway?'' It was hard to explain to him how the echoes of my favorite passages would be companions to me in the routine motions of my days.

Eventually, I ended up on a Kentucky farm with my husband. We settled down and grew crops and livestock and baby girls. Those years were spent pacing the floors at wee hours, chasing toddlers to the barn, driving kindergarten car pools, and reading picture books.

My Spanish literature shelves grew dusty. One of my favorite old college books was the leather-bound copy of the complete works of Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca. I would pull it out and open randomly to a poem such as ``Los alamos de plato'' (``The Silver Poplars''), ``Sevilla,'' or ``El Barrio de Cordoba'' (``The Quarter in Cordoba''), which would give me inspiration and a lyric mood amid the routine of farm chores and childcare. My avid pursuit of Spanish literature may have been interrupted, but it was never forgotten.

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It always amazes me when people ask why I majored in Romance languages. What practical value could it have? they would ask. They found the study of Spain's literature during the Golden Age or French medieval dramas to be irrelevant. And I would explain how, during convocation, our college president had encouraged incoming freshmen to study what most excited us. He told us to take advantage of this rare and fleeting time to explore the world of study for learning's sake and that we would reap the lifetime benefits of this scholastic enjoyment. I know now just what he meant.

While I pursued biology, politics, and anthropology, I was drawn, unconsciously at first, to a Spanish culture class. As a Cuban-American, I had always felt the pull of my paternal roots without realizing where they began. In a freshman Spanish class led by the dignified, slightly austere head of the department, I discovered the origins of my Catalan forbears and the weighty promise of a complex culture and tradition.

I signed up to go to Spain on a college semester abroad to be led by this same professor. Prof. Robert Russell, born and raised in Illinois, spoke Castilian flawlessly and knew the country like a native. Our group of 17 students followed him like ducklings through narrow alleyways and gracious plazas to see the obscure dwelling of some favorite literary character. He introduced us to impressive Roman architecture, mosaic tiled mosques, and picturesque cathedrals.

In Salamanca, where we studied, we were guided through the thickets of old literature and layered history. Like the rarest of professors, this man could inspire and demand the very best of our developing scholarly minds.

While many of the other American students grew homesick and counted the days until their return, I could have stayed forever. This made him comment wisely, ``You have discovered your madre-patria (the mother country),'' which seemed a strange comment until I visited the village where my father's ancestors had lived before their voyage to Cuba. The fertile Catalan soil of Torroella seemed a fitting launching pad for an extended Cuban family.

I would go on to major in Romance languages, with a specialty in Spanish. I went back to Spain one semester as Professor Russell's student assistant, the first time in my college's history a woman had done this job. The two of us spent hours guiding American students through the intricacies and joys of the Spanish way of life. I had made a small step from prote to partner.

Spain, the very breadth of its many regions and dialects and its variety of diverse cultures, had become an indelible part of my sense of self and origin. More than just a major, my studies had given me a sense of personal cohesiveness, nurtured compassionately by the dedicated man who made his students feel both challenged and respected.

When I finished college those many years ago, the road seemed to be leading inevitably toward my continued pursuit of Spanish studies as a scholar and professor.

Instead, I dedicated myself to a family and to cultivating a new land that was more immediate. But I never forgot Spain, my friends there, and the man who led the way.

As I approached this reunion with my old professor, now retired, I worried. Had I let him down? Was my part-time teaching of Spanish conversation to beginners a lack of literary fervor? Would we find anything to talk about after my years of maternal cares and his continued studies?

As we rolled into his driveway, my heart was pounding. I stopped the car and slowly unloaded the main product of those years away - four daughters, ages 13 to 4. Meanwhile, his front door opened and I saw the familiar face, so little changed. My reserved and dignified professor came forward, arms extended, and greeted me with a poignant, ``Que alegria!'' (What happiness!). We embraced as all true Spaniards do. At that moment, I knew that the ties that bound us had remained intact.

Once inside, I found on his kitchen shelf the same ceramic rooster I had made in a Salamanca art class all those years ago. I remembered molding the red clay into a favorite Spanish symbol, the rooster, which was said to be always anunciando el aurora (announcing the dawn); a fitting example of the earthy and spiritual vigor of this ancient land. I had given the rooster to my professor after my first momentous trip to Spain. The old imprint of my initials, C.T. 1975, was a tangible affirmation of my ongoing connection to this land.

The next two hours passed too quickly. We reminisced, we caught up on the present, and my professor helped my timid four-year-old, Madeleine, write her whole name for the first time.

Toward the end of my visit, Professor Russell shared with me a treasured new book from Spain. It was an elegant reprint of a Spanish classic that he loved and I had studied with him. Our heads bent over a text that was at once familiar and somewhat forgotten. But like the inspired student I had been, I knew I had come back to a place that felt like home and that the literature was still relevant and enduring.

This was the man who had restored my paternal roots while still promising ongoing discoveries. What I had learned from him had never been truly abandoned, only transformed in the manner of all real knowledge, through my experience. Someday I may write literary analysis again, but what is more important is to have known the initial inspiration and to have kept it always alive.

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