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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
CHRISTMAS MORNING, when I got down to the kitchen, the men were just
coming in from their morning chores-- the horses and pigs always had their
breakfast before we did. Jake and Otto shouted `Merry Christmas!' to me,
and winked at each other when they saw the waffle-irons on the stove.
Grandfather came down, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday coat. Morning
prayers were longer than usual. He
read the chapters from Saint Matthew about the birth of Christ, and as we
listened, it all seemed like something that had happened lately, and near
at hand. In his prayer he thanked the Lord for the first Christmas, and
for all that it had meant to the world ever since. He gave thanks for our
food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities,
where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us.
Grandfather's prayers were often very interesting.
He had the gift of simple and moving expression.
Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they
were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was
thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to
know his feelings and his views about things.
we sat down to our waffles and sausage, Jake told us how pleased the
Shimerdas had been with their presents; even Ambrosch was friendly and
went to the creek with him to cut the Christmas tree.
It was a soft grey day outside, with heavy clouds working across
the sky, and occasional squalls of snow. There were always odd jobs to be
done about the barn on holidays, and the men were busy until afternoon.
Then Jake and I played dominoes, while Otto wrote a long letter
home to his mother. He always wrote to her on Christmas Day, he said, no
matter where he was, and no matter how long it had been since his last
letter. All afternoon he sat in the dining-room. He would write for a
while, then sit idle, his clenched fist lying on the table, his eyes
following the pattern of the oilcloth. He spoke and wrote his own language so seldom that it came to
him awkwardly. His effort to remember entirely absorbed him.
about four o'clock a visitor appeared:
Mr. Shimerda, wearing his rabbit-skin cap and collar, and new
mittens his wife had knitted. He had come to thank us for the presents,
and for all grandmother's kindness to his family.
Jake and Otto joined us from the basement and we sat about the
stove, enjoying the deepening grey of the winter afternoon and the
atmosphere of comfort and security in my grandfather's house. This feeling
seemed completely to take possession of Mr. Shimerda. I suppose, in the
crowded clutter of their cave, the old man had come to believe that peace
and order had vanished from the earth, or existed only in the old world he
had left so far behind. He sat still and passive, his head resting against
the back of the wooden rocking-chair, his hands relaxed upon the arms. His
face had a look of weariness and pleasure, like that of sick people when
they feel relief from pain. Grandmother
insisted on his drinking a glass of Virginia apple-brandy after his long
walk in the cold, and when a faint flush came up in his cheeks, his
features might have been cut out of a shell, they were so transparent. He
said almost nothing, and smiled rarely; but as he rested there we all had
a sense of his utter content.
it grew dark, I asked whether I might light the Christmas tree before the
lamp was brought. When the
candle-ends sent up their conical yellow flames, all the coloured figures
from Austria stood out clear and full of meaning against the green boughs.
Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the tree,
his head sunk forward. His long
body formed a letter `S.' I saw grandmother look apprehensively at
grandfather. He was rather
narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people's
feelings. There had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now,
with some one kneeling before it--images, candles ... Grandfather merely put
his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus
Protestantizing the atmosphere.
persuaded our guest to stay for supper with us.
He needed little urging. As we sat down to the table, it occurred to
me that he liked to look at us, and that our faces were open books to him.
When his deep-seeing eyes rested on me, I felt as if he were looking
far ahead into the future for me, down the road I would have to travel.
nine o'clock Mr. Shimerda lighted one of our lanterns and put on his
overcoat and fur collar. He
stood in the little entry hall, the lantern and his fur cap under his arm,
shaking hands with us. When he took grandmother's hand, he bent over it as
he always did, and said slowly, `Good woman!'
He made the sign of the cross over me, put on his cap and went off in
the dark. As we turned back to
the sitting-room, grandfather looked at me searchingly. `The prayers of all
good people are good,' he said quietly.
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