Monday, October 18, 2010

O Pioneers!

" . . . there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years." Willa Cather, O Pioneers!


 A rare experience indeed. This past weekend, I hosted a visitor from the past, someone who died twenty-five years ago, someone who had lived out his life when mine had barely begun - an ancestor.  The form in which my grandfather came to me should have been no surprise: a novel.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather has been around since 1913, so how had I overlooked it for so long?  Maybe I wasn't meant to read it before now; I would have disdained its themes and mocked its deceptive simplicity.  Well, life and wind have weathered me some, and I can see great wisdom in this slim volume.


I must confess that my father's ancestors have always intrigued me more than those in Mom's family.  Vibrant and dramatic, they traveled and lived in exotic places.  The numbered among their ranks refugees, rebels, runaways, and one who met the firing squad for being on the wrong side of politics in his country.  There were enough secrets among them to fill a book about family dysfunction.  My mother's family just did not compare: Swedish farmers in Iowa.  Stoic and undemonstrative, they talked about rainfall and crops.  They shook their heads and wondered at those who had all the sense educated out of them.  They tinkered and puttered and built.


I remember grandpa inspecting his garden daily, handing us sweet peas and green onions to sample. He planted seedlings in egg cartons, made plant food from kitchen scraps, and made his own rose hybrids just to see how they would turn out.  He noted every sunrise and the thickness of morning dew, and knew all the farmers' folklore about geese migrating early and fat squirrels portending a hard winter.


"Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things.  Not many people would have cared to read it..." 


He was amazingly patient with us kids.  He let us putter with him in the garage, and always found a job suitable for small hands.  He took us fishing, and likely considered it the most glorious thing he could share with us.  There were no movies, no indulgences of candy, toys or praise, and only rare hugs and smiles in his grandfatherly repertoire. 


"There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon." 


I saw him in countless small details in O Pioneers!  He was Emil without Emil's tragedy, Alexandra without her loneliness.  More than a novel, O Pioneers! is almost an epic poem, painting the beauty and struggle of life on the northern prairie. There is the poignancy of being tied to a hard land, of emmigrating from afar, of a new hope and a new land changing the outer self but only distilling ever more the Scandinavian soul.


"Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields." 


For some people, love is not touches, indulgences, and flowery words.  It is time invested, silent tears shed, sweat, and hard work.  Happiness is not what you put on to show the rest of the world; it is being blessed with productive work, it is green things that shoot forth from the soil at your bidding, and the warm kiss of sun that penetrates the cold.  It is provision, a roof, health, and a life spent in meaningful responsibilities.  How fortunate I was to stumble upon my grandfather in this book, and to see him more clearly twenty-five years out than I did when I was at his side.  And like a dim mirror that reflects darkly, I see a piece of my own soul.


"When the eyes of the flesh are shut, the eyes of the spirit are open."

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