I’ve always believed that written or spoken words, with their ability to communicate our thoughts, wishes, discoveries, joys and sorrows — sometimes across time and space — carry with them a bit of magic. On the printed page, whispered into a waiting ear or shouted from the rooftops, language forms the bedrock upon which society and culture are built.
I’m particularly captivated by words from other languages that cannot be easily translated into English. These words often convey ideas and situations we’re all familiar with, but for some reason, when it came to creating English words to describe them, they never quite made the cut.
For example, ya’arburnee, an Arabic word, expresses the hope that you will die before someone you love because you wouldn’t be able to bear living without them. Literally, it means “may you bury me.” The Japanese have boketto, which describes the act of staring blankly into the distance. From Yiddish there is luftmensch, which refers to someone who is not successful in life or business due to his or her unrealistic ideas and goals. And in Brazilian Portuguese, there’s cafuné, a word that describes the motion one makes when running their fingers through a lover’s hair. (Leave it to the Brazilians to require a word just for this.)
Perhaps one of my favorite, and I think one of the most beautiful “untranslatable” words, is saudade, a Portuguese term that conveys a longing for a person, place or time you recollect warmly but know you will very likely never be able to experience again. Derived from the Latin solitate, or “solitude,” saudade acknowledges, mourns, even celebrates, the discarded bits of ourselves that lie scattered across the landscape of our lives. Saudade also implies a feeling of gratefulness, the glow we feel in our hearts when we remember how lucky we are to have had particular experiences and people in our lives. Like an empty chair at the family dinner table that reminds us of the person who once filled it, the empty spaces within us take on the silhouettes of those who left them behind.
Saudade is different than nostalgia or reminiscences, which are often about remembering with a sort of affection occurrences and relationships no longer relevant in our lives. Even if it’s rooted in the past, saudade lives in the present.
Portuguese art, literature and traditional fado music, which literally means “fate” or “destiny,” are all heavily informed by the concept of saudade. The Portuguese, along with the people living in Portugal’s former colonies, such as Cape Verde and Brazil, have built an entire culture around their unapologetic, deep and passionate feelings about just about everything, from romantic love to sports teams. They approach life with the notion that all emotions, happy or sad, are worth experiencing because collectively they are what make us human.
Since my daughter started college in the fall of 2016, I’ve come to know saudade well. Madelaine’s absence from our house has often been difficult for my husband and me, as her absence is a presence all its own. I often find myself thinking about the days before she started kindergarten, when I was a stay-at-home mom. Back then, we were together all the time, sometimes 24 hours a day for weeks on end when my husband was traveling for work. We ate all our meals together. I helped her get dressed every morning. We shopped together and went for walks around the neighborhood. In the wintertime, we snuggled on the couch under a blanket while we watched her favorite show, “Arthur,” on TV. Some days I longed to get away, to have another adult to talk to. There were times when I lost my patience and did things I now regret.
I grieve the loss of the baby that Madelaine was, and the loss of myself as a young mother. But these memories also bring with them a powerful and bittersweet happiness. I’m grateful I was able to spend so much time with my daughter when she was young, and I believe the time we spent together helped her become the intelligent, thoughtful young woman she is today. The sadness my memories bring helps me better appreciate the time she and I spend together now. Because I know that someday I will look back at these moments with longing, too.