“At any rate, that is happiness;
to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
– Jim in “My Antonia” – Willa Cather
Yesterday I agreed to take my daughter and her friend to a book signing promoting the work of a TV heart-throb who is also something of a decent photographer. This is not usually my kind of gig, but it was being held at a bookstore which also houses the First Draft Pub. I am a sucker for anything which utilizes a clever play on words. But bottom line: the event was at a bookstore. Few things rouse my sacrificial inclinations like proximity to a bookstore. I also had some romantic notions of spending Valentine’s Day huddled in a dimly lit corner with a book and a strong cup of tea. (I was driving. With children.)
Reminder: You can buy calendars for 50% off if you wait long enough. (I am often a week late turning the monthly pages anyway.) So, one 2015 calendar, one book, two gifts, and a birthday card later, I discovered that this was not the store location with the pub. Darn! I settled for the adjoining sandwich shop, and at a small table in a long row of small tables, in front of a long row of windows, took out my just-purchased copy of “My Antonia.” Ultimately, it would be five hours before the girls’ books were signed. That is plenty of time to read, and as it turns out, reminisce.
My son will soon be reading “My Antonia” in school, and I invited myself to read along. Just in case he wanted to discuss it. Maybe. I, too, was in high school when I first read “My Antonia” – a high school in Nebraska, no less. I don’t remember Willa Cather being presented with sentiment beyond appropriate reverence and appreciation. She was not God; she was not worshiped. She had moved to Nebraska at age nine and left the state in early adulthood. This was my exact journey. I do not know if Miss Cather made any promises before she left Nebraska, but I promised my high school Music/English teacher that I would one day read Cather’s “Song of the Lark.” More than anything I ever studied about Cather, it was this request that hinted at her significance and perhaps that of all young women setting off into the world – even mine. I was, after all, a girl with a song in her heart.
Cather was nearly a century ahead of me in discovering both the harsh realities and secret treasures of rural Nebraska life. Her writing is evidence that my memories are not mistaken. The forces of earth and sky she describes were still breathing life into persevering inhabitants when I lived there, and by Chapter V, the words on the pages had been replaced with my own recollections.
I felt the silty bottom of the Niobrara River washing from beneath my bare feet as I trudged waist deep against its murky current. I felt sticky sap against the rough bark of fragrant ponderosa pine branches. (Climbing those pines was something like an act of human Velcro antics.) I smelled the sweetness of haystack straw, its nimble shafts gentle in their pricks to sliding backsides. I felt the lung-biting coldness of a dazzling day-after-a-blizzard.
Despite the aspirations of movie plots, I cannot transfer these memories to my son. He will experience Antonia’s world with only Cather’s interpretation. That will, I am sure, more than suffice.