Happy 142nd Birthday Willa Cather!
`Had a good sleep, Jimmy?’ she asked briskly. Then in a very different tone she said, as if to herself, `My, how you do look like your father!’ I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she must often have come to wake him like this when he overslept. `Here are your clean clothes,’ she went on, stroking my coverlid with her brown hand as she talked. `But first you come down to the kitchen with me, and have a nice warm bath behind the stove. Bring your things; there’s nobody about.’
`Down to the kitchen’ struck me as curious; it was always `out in the
kitchen’ at home.
I have remembered that sentence (“‘Down to the kitchen’ struck me as curious’ it was always ‘out in the kitchen’ at home”) since I read it in eleventh grade. It spoke to me, when I was a teenager, of seeing the world anew. I had just come back from a trip to Paris with my parents where the cars, when compared to automobiles in New York City, had seemed impossibly small. After only three eventful weeks away, the New York cars seemed steamship big.
When I entered college in Pennsylvania, I encountered an alternative grammar. “My shirt needs washed,” some of my PA friends said, instead of the “My shirt needs to be washed,” with which I grew up. When a college friend visited me in my parents’ home in New York City, he found comfort in seeing the same pots and pans his mother used (Paul Revere stainless steel copper-bottomed) and in familiar-looking kitchen towels, but had a guttural “Whaaaaa?” to the type of bar soap my mom used, although it was in the same type of holder atop the faucet as in his home far away.
From time to time, I’ve reread Cather’s My Antonia, a sweeping tale of a relocated boy from Virginia to a new life in Nebraska, of his loves, of the harsh realities and joys of his life on the prairie. As a teen and college student, I connected with Jim, the protagonist, experiencing the tiny jolt as he traveled the aural microsphere from the familiar “out in the kitchen” to the new “down to the kitchen,” and his romantic yearnings. As a “grown up,” I have identified with the adults who foster family life even as they fear economic disaster. Perhaps, in coming years, when I reread My Antonia, I will focus on the subtly depicted experiences of the elders, what it must have been like for a grandmother to gaze upon her grandson looking for her lost son.