What I loved most about my grandpa was his appetite for reading. Although Grandpa predictably slathered all of his main meals in a hefty dose of Heinz ketchup, a Nassau County Library card was the only proper thing that could satiate his hunger. Just before we moved him to Hospice, I tried to tell him about a book a professor assigned me. In response, he shouted angrily, “I don’t care!” That is how I knew he was gone.
Interestingly, my grandpa left me with one book recommendation in his late life, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. For the past four years, the classic masterpiece about life on the Nebraska prairie hung in my head like an unfinished homework assignment or a blurry memory. I could not bring myself to go to pick it up, instead preferring more contemporary, presumptively more progressive titles such as Citizen or The Sixth Extinction.
For 2017, I decided to challenge myself to read only books by women authors, so my grandpa’s suggestion felt all the more critical. When I was home last month, I went to trusty-as-ever Bookman’s and bought a copy for $3, giving in, owning up.
As I started to read the story of Jim Burden and his 1900s childhood, I felt something I never expected: a sense of commonality. There is a passage, near the beginning of the book, that stopped my heart:
“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers…I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
I am writing this blog post from Stony Point, New York at a summer multifaith farming institute. The last time I spent this much time in New York, I was with my grandpa at the end of his life. The July humidity is familiar.
Essentially, I am spending a month of my summer living in community with others who are part of Abrahamic faith traditions, getting my hands and feet dirty by foraying into farming and learning from spiritual teachers about the best path to resistance and resilience. The process of farming is giving me a magic power, the ability to relate to a tradition of working the land that I never claimed for myself.
On our first day at the farm, we harvested beets. Kneeling in the ground, I marveled at my hands. They were covered in splotches of dirt brown and purple-red. It was so easy to lift the vegetables from the ground, a small miracle of someone else’s careful sowing, watering and weeding. As a neophyte field worker, I must scrub underneath my fingernails carefully, adding a new step in my hand-washing process.
Since my start in farming, I realized a new meaning for metaphors. I grabbed a pitchfork and stuck it into heavy compost, finally understanding the literal meaning of to “unearth.”
Out on the field, I wonder where I can form similes to the generations of humanity participating in agriculture. The story of a rural life, of growing one’s own food, is deeply embedded in almost every culture, country and time.
To put in plainly, I have never before associated my Jewishness with farmers. In my childhood, I detested bugs and loved air conditioning. When I close my eyes and imagine my ancestors, I remember Grandpa telling me how his mother worked in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side, sewing a dress for Mamie Eisenhower. At Stony Point, I live with people who do explicitly link their Jewish heritage to the land. It makes me realize I could have been missing a connection that was there all along.
While reading My Antonia, I kept wondering how my grandpa was tied to Cather’s story. The life I knew that he had was never one on the open prairie; instead it was synagogue, PBS movies, the legacy of being a World War II veteran. What was my Grandpa’s recommendation trying to tell me? Why was this specific book the only one he repeatedly suggested?
My best guess is that he was, we are, I am able to draw happiness from the land, all of his stories dissolved into something bigger than ourselves.