'Saudade' tells a heart's story

Dan Rodricks

October 19, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

It happened perhaps five years ago, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon. During a break in an interview, I was telling a simple story -- an anecdote, really; so ordinary I can't even remember it now -- and the man seated across from me started crying. He pulled himself up and --ed out of the room.

"Anything the least bit sentimental does that to him," his wife said. "Anything at all that reminds him of his childhood."

I had been interviewing the man for a story about an orphanage that used to exist in Baltimore. The man had been a resident of the place in the 1930s, and now he was the organizer of a reunion for the men who had once been boys without family.

"I'm sorry," the man said, returning to the room, returning to his chair.

I didn't press to learn what I had stirred awake inside the man. I felt as though I had wandered onto a very fragile section of his heart, tripping a wire connected to his memory. I don't think the man was overly sentimental. He was filled with what the Portuguese call "saudade," one of the world's fabulous words that have great meaning beyond their dictionary definition.

For the record, saudade refers to a kind of longing, or "ardent wish or desire." But it transcends those simple words into a feeling familiar to all people who have opened their hearts, or had their hearts broken, or made a decision that changed their lives, or had their lives changed by circumstance. The many immigrants who came to the United States during the last century and a half know what the Portuguese mean by "saudade." There is "muitas saudades" in Barry Levinson's new film, "Avalon."

I think this feeling could be triggered by the slightest whisper.

The man who cried, for instance, probably had a lifelong case of saudade. If saudade refers to "a longing to see someone terribly missed," then maybe the man longed for his father and mother. (They were killed in an auto crash when the man was very small.) Or perhaps the approaching reunion had filled him with memories of the other boys in the orphanage, or of the adults who had cared for him, or perhaps, in some larger way, it made him think of all people who suffer the torments of memory.

Anyway, the mystery of the word is in its unique meaning to each person.

A man had told me of "saudades" a few weeks ago. He had been taught that "saudades" refered to the mixture of feelings that accompany almost all of the landmark events of life -- the birth of a child, a wedding, a funeral. "A man goes to his daughter's wedding," I was told, "and he experiences saudade. He is happy for his daughter, the wedding is a joyous occasion. But he is sad because he's losing his little girl, and life goes on, and the man grows older."

I thought of saudade the other day at the sight of a clutched hand in an airport. Again when I saw a young boy embrace his mother at a bus stop. Again when, toward the end of the film, "Cinema Paradiso," a man named Salvatore returns to his home town in Italy to attend the funeral for his mentor in life, the older man who had instructed him to go away, find his success and never look back.

A Portuguese dictionary contains the phrase, "Ter muitas saudades de sua terra ou de sua patria" (to be homesick, to have a longing or hankering for one's home or country.) One part of the immigrant story that is frequently overlooked is the hardship of heart endured by those who left Ireland, Greece, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Africa, and who came to America -- by choice or by force. We tend to assume that they were all happy to leave their home countries behind. The American Dream insists that the past was dark and that the future was bright. But those who know better -- who understand that real life is a mixture of feelings -- understand "saudade." It's not merely sadness, or melancholy. It's the feeling of being pulled from three sides at once -- the past, the present and the future. It means that, when a man or woman makes a choice to improve the way they live, they often lose something.

"Morro com saudades de o ver" (I die with impatience to see him) is the whisper of a soul broken in two by time, distance or circumstance. Saudade is what the waiting lover feels -- anticipation, frustration. The condition does not have to be permanent, of course. "Matar ou desafogar saudades" (To visit again the person one longed after) is the way the heart keeps faith and endures.

But I have a feeling that, even with happy endings and reunions, saudade remains in the soul -- quiet and honest, like a personal folklorist. And he can whisper to us at any time.

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