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Present when Absent: The Immortality of a Fulfilled Life - by Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

Present when Absent: The Immortality of a Fulfilled Life

In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, two childhood friends who grew up on a farm on the prairie of Nebraska meet after a long period of absence and recollect the happy memories of their childhood.

As Jim Burden tells Antonia that he will be leaving to study and practice law in New York and says farewell, she responds,

“Of course you are going away from us for good… But that doesn’t mean I’ll lose you. Look at my papa here; he’s been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life.”

Although Antonia’s father has been absent from her life for the past ten years and although Antonia may not see Jim again, their absence does not diminish their presence in each other’s lives.

Presence and Influence

Jim and Antonia have traveled separate roads since their childhood, Jim leaving to study at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and Antonia working in town as a “hired woman” doing domestic work for a family. Yet, Jim expresses the same sentiments and reassures Antonia that their absence in no way erases her presence and influence in his life:

“Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world… The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.”

How does someone absent become present, real, and constant in a person’s life when that person is deceased, moved to another part of the country, or never visits again?

When one person makes a profound difference in the life of another, passes down a great love for something enduring, communicates a great love or passion for life, or shares the gift of self in the constancy of true friendship, the person’s memory lives on forever and the person’s reality and nearness are naturally felt.

Mr. Shimerda’s (Antonia’s father) legacy to his daughter was his great love of music and European culture, all left behind in the old country for the benefit of his children’s future in ‘the land of opportunity’. Antonia recalls her father always playing his violin and performing at weddings and dances in Bohemia, always reveling in the joy of friendships and relishing the art of living well in the civilized part of Europe that appreciated music and the arts.

More than Mere Survival

Because Antonia works on the farm and earns income for her family as a hired servant in town and eventually marries to raise a large family, she does not pursue music like her father. But she inherits the spirit of joy he shared with others through his violin and cheerful heart.

Antonia develops a passion for dancing (“Antonia was the best dancer of all”) and welcomes every Saturday night as an opportunity to express her love of life and friendship.

When given an ultimatum by her employer (“You can quit going to those dances, or you can finds another place”), Antonia refuses to banish mirth, fun, and music from her life for the sake of steady employment and wages.

Life is not about mere survival or work alone but also about pure enjoyment, occasions to look beautiful, a time for picnics, and the revelry of friendship. Jim remembers Antonia always as a woman with “a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not overdelicate, but very invigorating”—an appreciation for simple innocent pleasures, the enjoyment of life at its fullest, and lively fun that her father taught her with his violin.

Transmitting the Energy

What Mr. Shimerda passed down to Antonia, Antonia transmits to Jim. This exuberance, energy, and vitality that Antonia embodied left its mark upon Jim as the best of his childhood memories. As a child he fondly recalls her stories that “come right out of her heart.”

As a young man he admired Antonia’s delight in parties, the “spring and variety” of her dance steps, the warmth of her sweet smile, and “the true heart in her” that always shared her happiness with others. When Jim reminisces about Antonia and the other immigrant girls he played with on the farm, he remembers “something unusual and engaging about each of them” that distinguished them as more “interesting” than the respectable American girls who were not allowed to be hired help as cooks or maids in other homes.

The surge of physical energy, the effervescent overflow of joy, and the glow of a warm, loving heart moved Jim to offer Antonia and the other immigrant girls the highest of compliments: “If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry.”

Those who remain present even though they are absent are real because they brought poetry into people’s lives. In his study of Virgil, Jim learns from his Latin teacher the importance of the Muses, the nine goddesses of inspiration that presided over the arts of dance, song, and poetry in ancient Greece.

Living an A-Mused Life

The Muses breathe life into the spirit just as music and dance inspire joy and rekindle a love of life. The Muses stir the fire in the heart, make a person feel youthful and ebullient, and evoke wonder through the creation of beauty. Without the Muses, without poetry, without women like Antonia, life would be reduced to burdensome toil and a wearisome existence.

As Plato said of the Muses, they heal the exhaustion of man from overwork and fill him with a renewed energy to stand erect and walk again. The gods gave man the Muses “as a means of refreshment from their fatigue . . . to the end that, after refreshing themselves in the company of the gods, they might return to an upright posture.”

For Antonia to think of her father, or for Jim to remember Antonia, is to feel the power of the Muse transfiguring the quality of life.

Just as Mr. Shimerda breathed this life into Antonia, she also blew an energy, vivacity, fire, and passion into Jim’s life that always revives when he thinks of Antonia. After a twenty-year absence Jim visits Antonia in her married life on a Nebraska farm with eleven children (“a veritable explosion of life”) and feels as if it were but yesterday that he and Antonia were exploring the prairie.

The children plead with Jim to recite the stories their mother has already told them about her past: “I felt like a little boy in their company, and all manner of forgotten interests revived in me.”

The life that Antonia breathed into Jim’s childhood she now infuses into the lives of her children and husband on the farm: “All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions . . . . She was a mine of life, like the founders of early races.”

Thus a person who has died or is absent for long periods can live forever because, as Jim reflects, “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”


About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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