My kids are learning Latin in school. That puts a big smile on my face. Not simply because they are being trained in a language inextricably linked with the rich history of our Catholic faith, but because it offers poetic justice in my own much-less storied narrative. My dad, Jerry, was a Latin teacher at an all-boys Catholic high school for a number of years, until Latin decidedly went out of vogue, somewhere in the late 70’s to 80’s. Not one to be swayed by passing trends, he still valued the importance of the sacred, historic language and when the time came for me to choose an elective in the 9th grade, he wisely counseled me to pick Latin. I gave it a cursory thought and smugly replied, “It’s a dead language, Dad! I’m taking French.” Not ready to concede defeat, my father asserted that while Latin was dead it would provide me a great springboard for learning any of the Romance languages, including French. And since English used so many words with Latin origins, it would most likely increase my vocabulary and reading comprehension. That’s the gist of what he said. What I heard was, “blah-blah-blah-blah-Latin, boring Latin…” In my teenage mind, I wanted to take French because it seemed romantic and exciting and honestly it just sounded so dang pretty.
I took French for eight years: four in high school and four in college, including my junior year abroad in Paris. Ooh la la! Throughout that time and even into my 20’s I would regularly remind my dad how he had obtusely and hilariously proposed my taking Latin way back when. Ha! Me, a cosmopolitan French-speaking young woman of the world taking Latin? As if.
As I saw it, it was not only my father’s peculiar tastes in language which were clearly out of step with the rest of elevated society; his hobbies were pretty suspect as well. He was an accordionist. That’s right—he played the accordion. Not just for fun. For most of my youth, he hustled as a part-time professional musician, playing for countless weddings and bar mitzvahs, taking jobs to help pay for our astronomical orthodontia bills and college tuition, of which he reminded us constantly. While most people were kicking out the jams with rock-n-roll’s electric guitar, my dad plugged in his accordion, the hallowed Cordovox. Imagine waking up to that on weekend mornings while he practiced serenading to Englebert Humpberdink’s “After the Lovin’.” Greater Cleveland’s party halls were never the same.
He was not a conformist when it came to sports either. What a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan! Not the play-off bound, winning-streak team we’ve seen over the last several years. I mean the pathetic, infamous losing team that sparked the classic movie “Major League” because they were the joke of the whole league. But that didn’t discourage him from tracking their abysmal record; he would faithfully sit and watch all their games on TV. I’d pass through the living room to get a snack in the kitchen and he would be ensconced in the recliner contentedly watching his tribe “getting a good shellacking.” He knew their stats and the few times I accompanied him to a game in the way back bleachers, he’d have the time of his life shouting to the players, “can o’ corn!” for pop flies while munching on his favorite—popcorn balls that he’d smuggled into the stadium so he didn’t have to pay the outrageous concessions prices. “What kind of meatball pays full price at the stadium?” he’d earnestly justify.
My dad has been deceased for 7 years. He suffered countless maladies in the long lead up to his death, including strokes, dementia and cancer. But he always had a heroic resolve to live despite his failing health. In the attorney’s office as he was drafting his will, he made his wishes known to me: life was a cherished gift from God that he intended to hang on to as long as it was humanly possible. Towards the end, in his assisted living facility he was the last holdout to sign a DNR. For those of you not yet exposed to the grim realities of aging and end-of-life care, it is a document which stands for Do Not Resuscitate. If a patient were to experience a life-threatening emergency, the paperwork warns medical crews to refrain from performing CPR. My brother and I were counseled that to save an 80-year-old’s life in a cardiac emergency would result in broken ribs and debilitating pain. After some sobering discussion with doctors and family, we reluctantly opted to sign the death warrant.
We never had to use the DNR. While he managed to miraculously rally through countless trips to the ER and defy so many doctor’s dire predictions, he finally succumbed. It was a peaceful death with his children at his side. We prayed the rosary and he was anointed by a priest. It was exactly as he had ordained it. I know because he would regularly tell me. It struck me as a bit morbid to hear my spry father advise me throughout my life on his future deathbed instructions. It always ended the same way. He’d hold my hand and squeeze three times, imagining he was unable to speak. That would be the sign for “I-Love-You.” I was to squeeze four times back. “I-Love-You-Too.”
Since my father’s death, I have to admit I’m still not a huge fan of the accordion. I like the Indians well enough—when they are winning. But I have come full circle on my thoughts about Latin. As my Catholic faith has been reignited, I’ve come to appreciate that so-called dead language, even wistfully wishing that I had taken my dad’s recommendation three decades ago. I see the merits of studying a language which has its roots in the ancient liturgy I’ve grown to love. It offers historical reference and insight into a Church of which I can’t seem to satiate my desire to learn more about. I try unsuccessfully to memorize some of the responses in mass. I’m the person who moves my lips so it seems like I actually know what I’m saying. My kids just smile condescendingly. I am thrilled to hear my children discover all the English words they recognize for their Latin origins. My Father would be overjoyed to know his grandchildren are enthusiastically carrying the torch that I summarily dismissed. My beloved French? I never speak it. Zut alors!
November is a month in the liturgical calendar in which we remember and pray for the faithful departed, the souls in purgatory. I don’t know if my dad is in purgatory. There are no guarantees that he’s in heaven either. But there is no doubt in my mind that upon his death, he could be counted as one of the faithful. Either way, his prayers are strong. His Christian witness as a loving father and teacher was powerful. And I know it would especially make him chuckle for me to ask, “Ora pro nobis, Pater.” No need to translate. Unlike me, my dad knows Latin.