Tag Archives: immigrants

She could not be negative or perfunctory.

I’m reading My Antonia again — actually listening for the second time, to the recording narrated by Jeff Cummings. Next time I’d like to hear a different narrator, because I think Cummings makes the adult narrator of the story, Jim Burden, sound like young Anne of Green Gables. And he reads too fast, which doesn’t suit the pace of life depicted in the novel, and does an injustice to Willa Cather’s evocative prose.

This may be the fifth time I’ve read the book, and every time is a fresh experience. A paragraph or a personality will jump out at me as though I’m encountering it for the first time. For example, the introduction to the Burdens’ Norwegian neighbors after they moved into town:

“Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house. Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright, twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul. How well I remember her laugh; it had in it the same sudden recognition that flashed into her eyes, was a burst of humour, short and intelligent.

“Her rapid footsteps shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and indifference wherever she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory about anything. Her enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes, asserted themselves in all the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings’. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers.”

The-Harling-House_Red-Cloud_1013763 (2)
The “Harling House” in Red Cloud, Nebraska


When the weather is hot, my friend Nina prefers not to be out pruning roses or picking apples, so yesterday, it being 99 degrees, I kid you not, was a good day to visit and find her in the cool house doing a little embroidery. She set it aside while talking to me, though, and curled her slender legs under her where she sat in an easy chair.

I’ve been getting to know her since last winter, but I don’t recall ever seeing her dressed for cold weather. It’s usually some combination of Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, because she does not like being hot. Once when I came by she was just taking a loaf of bread out of the oven. It was intended primarily for her sandwiches, but we discovered that we are alike in our inability to resist freshly baked bread, so we enjoyed a warm slice together.

Before this year, I had rarely spoken to Nina, but I did study her very intently when I would see her in church, not daring to hope that ever in my life I might look so elegant. Maybe the use of a cane actually helped her to walk with the grace and erect carriage of a dancer. Week by week I would see her go up to the altar to pray, as though she were processing up a great hall to be crowned queen, or like a bride on her way down the aisle to be joined to her husband. She always wore a hat and a smile, never hurried, and looked completely serene and at peace. Yesterday she told me that as a young child she was allowed to walk to church by herself, which she loved to do, because being in church to her meant Peace.Nina bd girls w roses

We organized a surprise recognition of her 100th birthday, which fell on a Sunday. Our sisterhood bought 100 roses and toward the end of the service passed them out to as many parishioners to hold. At the very end Nina was ushered up to sit at the front and we all paraded by and gave her a rose and/or a greeting.

What a lot of stories she has to tell from so many years on this earth! Her family was Russian and her father went to China as part of the large crew on the Trans-Manchurian Railway, around the turn of the 20th century. Nina’s family were among the many workers’ families who became permanent residents of Manchuria, but they also were like many of the Russians in that they eventually immigrated to America. Her brother came first, and then Nina all by herself made the journey as a young woman. The stories of that trip to San Francisco, and how she found her brother and met her husband, are the fascinating topics of our chats together.Nina roses HB

A year or more after her 100th birthday Nina switched to a wheelchair for church attendance, but at home she continues without any assistance. She has lived alone for more than 25 years, having been widowed twice.

The second time she had only been married a year when her husband told her that he had had a dream about his late wife in which she asked him to take a walk with her. “Did you go with her?” was Nina’s immediate question. Because Russians have a superstition (she did not use that word) that if you have this dream about someone who has passed from this life, and you agree to walk with them, you will soon join them “on the other side.”

Nina says that her husband would not answer her question, and it wasn’t very long before they were in a car accident together, in which he was instantly killed. For a short time Nina lost her own will to live, but thanks to the mercy of God she realized that she loved her children and wanted to go on living. But in her own house, mind you, where she can do things the way she likes, including her own yard work, cooking, and housecleaning.??????????????????????

When she was about 50 she had some health problems, likely brought on by the pain of her first widowhood, and two of her doctors advised her about her diet. Between them she got the message not to eat dairy products or white flour, and to drink carrot juice. 50+ years ago how many people were drinking carrot juice? Not enough to cause the stores to carry it, so she bought a juicer and has been making her own ever since.

There doesn’t seem to be a fitting way to end this introduction to my friend who is now 102. She is going forward, and going strong, and shows no sign of slowing down. I want to learn from Nina, I want to be more like her. So far my lessons are: smile, drink your carrot juice, and stand up straight.