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Mater's Latin Lore: Semper Paratus

Any success is good for the soul - even a tiny, irrelevant-in-the-larger-scheme-of-things success, like making an impossible six-spades-doubled bid at the weekly duplicate bridge game, or addressing the last card on the Christmas list the day after Thanksgiving. Or coming up, on the spur of the moment, with the answer to an adult daughter's urgent, offbeat question.

The telephone in our New England kitchen had rung that evening as I was putting the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. Our daughter Susie was calling from her office in a bank in San Francisco, where the workers were still on the job.

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"I need a Latin translation," she announced without preamble. "I can't imagine why this guy put this in a letter to me; hang on a sec...." Telephone calls from either of our cross-country daughters invariably include "Hang on a sec."

I hung on and heard her say to someone in the office with her, "I'm talking to my mother. She used to do Latin with my sister and me when we were in high school."

"Mother? I'm back. We're having a meeting here, and I need to know what he was talking about, in case it makes a difference. Which it probably doesn't, but anyhow - how about: Fortunas...."

"Fortune favors the brave?" I hazarded.

Silence while she checked the letter.

"You got it!" she said. "Thank you! I knew I could count on you. Everything all right there?... Talk to you soon."

Not for nothing had I graduated from Boston's old Girls' Latin School, back in the days when Boston Latin School (for boys) and Girls' Latin School were still allowed to be separate but equal. Latin had been one of my favorite subjects.

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"It's like a crossword puzzle. Fun," I had tried in vain to convince my reluctant daughters years later, as we bent over their Latin texts. They would have none of it, shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes at me, and counting the minutes until we put the books away. For me, at least, it had been a refresher course. Fun.

I hung up the telephone, inordinately pleased with the world and my small part in it. The dishes fairly flew into the dishwasher by themselves.

Yet something at the edge of my consciousness was nagging at me, as I paused at the sink with a plate in my hand. Something simultaneously trivial and important that my conversation with Susie had reminded me of. Something to do with Latin, perhaps?

Abruptly the memory came flooding back. Something to do with Latin, indeed.

The telephone had rung that night, too. I had heard it, and the sound of running feet as younger members of the family raced to get there first. It had stopped ringing, and I'd gone on reading the paper in the living room.

A few minutes later, I became aware of a presence at my feet.

"That was Peter," my son said diffidently, "a kid in my Latin class."


"He asked me once if anybody ever helped me with Latin, and I told him you did sometimes. There's a place in tonight's homework that he can't figure out, and I can't either, and he wants me to ask you. I told him you probably wouldn't know, but he wants me to ask you anyhow...."

Touched by his confidence in me, I said, "Where is it? Show me."

"Here." He held the book in front of me and pointed. "This word here. Habuere. It looks like an infinitive, but it can't be."

I LOOKED at the word and the sentence, and I was back in school again, sitting in the huge double classroom where I, too, had met up with habuere. Somehow, under the steely gaze of a notoriously autocratic teacher, I had managed to vanquish it then, and the process had left its mark on me. I will probably never forget this eminently forgettable quirk of Latin grammar.

"I remember - was it in Virgil? - another form of the third person plural, perfect tense," I told my astonished son. "Habuere means the same as habuerunt, 'they had,' as you know. Try that in the sentence."

He looked from me to the book and back again, regarding me with something akin to awe as he realized I was right. "Gee, thanks," he mumbled. "I'll go tell Peter."

To this day, on rare occasions like this when I happen to think of it, I bask in the memory of that expression on his face. As I said, success is good for the soul - indefinitely, it seems.

How nice it would be if I could remember as well the name of the book, written in my native tongue, that I was reading last week, or even the name of the author who wrote it.

* 'Semper Paratus': always prepared.

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