Latin and Memory

Chapters read in “The Son of Neptune” last night: 2

Latin etymology of words my kids are interested in: 0

Number of states in America: 50

While we were reading “The Son of Neptune” last night, Percy Jackson and his new friends return to the Roman camp to beat down some bad dudes and monsters. One of them picks up an “old Roman dagger, a pugio.” I excitedly tell my kids that the word comes from the Latin word, “fist,” and has to do with fighting, and maybe they’ve heard the words “pugilism” and “pugnacious?” I am unsure why they do not find this scintillating.

Sometimes I wonder why I can remember random Latin derivations and not a devilishly creative name for a hair-styling salon that I saw on a trip that would be just perfect for a scene I’m writing. Here’s one reason: I spent 1/6 of my weekdays in Latin class for an entire four years of high school. I could tell you where the word “gregarious” comes from and why, but I’m guessing you probably don’t want me to.

I can also sing, “50 Nifty United States,” a song we learned for fifth grade chorus. I even got into an argument about it with about five fellow wait staff while I was working at Chili’s after college. Not one person sided with me when I maintained there were 50 states. Seriously. I even knew a little song about it. And they didn’t want me to sing it.

Memory works in weird ways. I try to keep a notebook with me at all times, but I’m notoriously bad about writing things down in it. And even when I do, I may not remember exactly what the thought process was behind it when I run across it later: “bird on windshield,” “anti-choice,” “packed like sardines,” “Outback.” If you can decipher these, give me a call and please explain.

Last year, over Thanksgiving, my parents, my sister, my husband and I got into a minor disagreement about the sequence of events surrounding my daughter’s birth nine years ago. An ice storm was rolling in, my parents knew they needed to fly up early, my sister was here to watch our two-year-old son… but no one could agree on fairly major points. My brother-in-law, who had not met my sister at the time, watched the argument with a detached Wimbledon face. Kind of like, “Why does this matter?”

We put it aside temporarily and started remembering:

“Remember when Anne came home, and she was sitting on the couch holding the baby, crying?”

“Yeah, because there was no power in the house, newspaper up over all the windows, nothing for anyone to eat, and my two-year-old was dancing around the den wearing dirty pajamas, a coat, and a hat with flaps down over his ears? I was a little concerned.” They also kept saying I would laugh about it someday, and I still can’t.

But here’s the deal: I wrote it all down. I could resolve that particular argument, because it was all in my journal. The bottom line is, to a writer, it matters.

I always think I will remember things, in a “how could I forget?” kind of way. But then, inevitably, something is lost. When I was in college, I brought some photos of my suitemates over to show my grandparents.

“You better write on the back of this picture everyone’s first and last names,” my grandfather said.

“Oh no, I’m sure I’ll remember these guys,” I said, as only a stupid college student would say to someone who’s actually lived beyond age 19.

“Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But I’d write it down, just in case.”

I’m still learning. But there are certain lessons I probably need drilled into my head for about 1/6 of every weekday for four years. This is one I have to keep learning over and over.