There is a famous whispering gallery here in Cancerland that beats the one at Saint Peter’s in that our whispering gallery clearly transmits voices not from a great distance across a dome but from the past. Snug yourself between the right columns, and you may hear, as if the person were standing beside you, almost anyone who actually did speak to you in the course of your life.
I heard my father, for instance, repeating something he really did say to me once. This was, gosh, seventeen years ago now. He was eighty three and ailing with colorectal cancer.
His English was very good, really, after so many decades in the States, but pretty often – and especially during that last period – he reverted to his native Hungarian in times of stress.
It was in that strange language that he originally said the strange thing I heard him say again a few hours ago over in the whispering gallery.
I won’t attempt any explication here of Magyar, which is what Hungarians call their own tongue, except to say that it is an astonishing agglomeration of words and sounds, related on this planet only to Finnish and not audibly even at that but only in ways recognizable to linguists.
Anyway, as I say, I won’t try to reproduce the words my father actually spoke, long ago and again today in the whispering gallery. Their meaning, more or less, was, I’m done for or I’m finished or I’m screwed.
But those renderings make the sentence sound colloquial, jocular, spoken as if with cigar in mouth, when it wasn’t that at all. To the contrary, it was, in fact, very decorous, very formal, almost archaic-sounding, and I pondered it for a very long time before I finally grasped exactly what was so odd about it. It was high-falutin’, the way a speech of Shakespeare’s would sound high-falutin’ coming from the lips of a contemporary man.
The literal translation of what my father said is…
I am laid waste…
As if he had been an overrun city, its walls pulled down, its buildings burned, its population slaughtered.
I am laid waste.
Understand now that my father was an educated man but not a scholar, nor a classicist of any kind, nor even a reader of much else besides invoices, ledgers, and business correspondence.
He was a salesman, a charming traveler in jewelry, proud of his ability to sweet-talk almost anyone into picking out a morsel from off one of his black-velvet-lined trays.
What business did he have holding forth in the rough equivalent of Homeric Hungarian at the end of his life?
I am laid waste, is what he said, back then and only just now.
Well, Dad: I am not laid waste, but still feel sorry, all these years later, that you felt you had been.
If the whispering gallery works in both directions, into as well as from the past, I will go back tomorrow to say this up against the stone: I never did think you’d been laid waste.
In my eyes, Dad, you held up wonderfully well.