The Great Plains is its own eco-niche with distinctive plants, mammals, birds, weather, and history that constantly evolve. Its human population is as dynamic as these other unique factors. Those of us whose families have lived here for generations understand the world Willa Cather describes in My Antonia. Our families lived her stories. When we read them, we wonder how we got where we are today.
I think of my Volga German family migrating from Russia in the late 1880s to settle in Rush County Kansas. They spent their first winter in a dugout like the one the Shimerdas occupied in Nebraska. They didn’t speak English and bought bananas from some enterprising salesman. In innocence, they ate the fruit-- peel and all, a story that still entertains us at reunions.
Like Antonia’s family, they lost loved ones. When twin babies died soon after they’d started their farm, our great-grandmother put their bodies in a cold dugout and walked several counties west during winter. She told her husband who worked for the Union Pacific that they’d lost their infants. He returned to dig graves in frozen earth.
My grandmother, those dead babies’ sister, spoke only German until she started school. She told her grandchildren about the school marm who smacked their hands with rulers when they didn’t speak English. Grandma’s own children grew up listening to aunts and uncles speaking the old tongue and understood it, though they didn’t use it. By the third generation, none of us spoke German unless we learned it in school.
Though they never spoke fluently, my father and his siblings had a hint of German accent that increased as they aged. I didn’t l know onkle wasn’t the pronunciation for uncle until I went to school.
Unlike some immigrant families that clung to traditional customs and food, my grandmother wanted to be fully American. We grew up eating fried chicken and roast beef at her table. Within two generations of arriving in America, our family had lost its native language and its food traditions.
I didn’t know about bierRocks, galuskies, green bean dumpling soup, spitzbuben, and cheese pockets until I moved to Ellis County—a Volga German conclave—as an adult. In short time, I bought every local cookbook I put my hands on until I learned to prepare traditional foods. Then, I made sure our daughters could cook them too.
What I learned watching my dad’s relatives integrate is that it takes three generations to assimilate into a new culture. We see the first two generations of this process in My Antonia. Families must make a concerted effort to keep customs alive, or they lose what makes them distinctive. There’s room enough in this land of vast horizons for people to hold onto old traditions and share them with others.