I watched Antonia’s Line tonight, a film that I vaguely recall as having come out when I was in college. I was off by about eight years, but never mind. It was rougher around the edges than I recall — I don’t think the dark parts resonated as much with me then as they do now — but it remains a fable of how to live a life dedicated to family, friends, creativity and generosity.
After WWII, Antonia and her daughter return to the small Dutch town in which she grew up. She quickly becomes a proud outcast, who collects the town’s “freaks” — be they outed by others or self-acknowledged — gathering them around her ever expanding dinner table.
When Antonia’s daughter, now a painter in art school, decides that she wants a baby but not a husband, Antonia is unfazed. The two women take off for the city, find an able man, and Daniela lures him to a hotel. After a few hours of trysting — enough for Antonia to grow bored of drinking sherry on the hotel lawn — Daniela stands on her head to make sure everything “takes”, then runs from the hotel, giddy and famished.
This was my favorite scene when I saw the film the first time. I didn’t really want a baby at the time, nor did I associate myself as an artist, but I loved the resourcefulness of it. Even then, there was some cheeky appeal to the way in which these women loved but did not need men. Tonight, my favorite scene was when Antonia tells her patient suitor Farmer Bar: “Many years ago, you asked for my hand in marriage. You can’t have my hand now, but you can have the rest of me. After all these years, I have the urge again.”
The sweet swirl of children running through most scenes of the film — we see Daniela’s daughter grow up and then her daughter — don’t undercut the toughness and occasional downright meanness of life in their village. Rape, incest, bigotry, illiteracy, hunger are all present. Nor does the art that Daniela makes nor the music that her daughter Teresa composes soften the blow. One good friend of Antonia’s eventually takes his life out of desolation–“Life is ugly.” — but the more powerful message comes from Antonia: “Life wants to live.”
As mothers we give life every day — don’t you feel sometimes as though you’re giving birth to another child each day, they can change so quickly? It’s hard not to sometimes feel overly bold with the power we are perceived to possess. As artists, the possibility of creating anew, of giving life to ideas and visions, is also an everyday event (in theory, at least, we have access to it daily, even if we can’t quite get to it). In our exhaustion and busyness, it’s easy to forget to keep feeding the fire of life.
You could do worse than to keep a big table with extra dishes at the ready for friends and those without a clear place to land. Treat life as a table of friends who have witnessed our life, just as we’ve witnessed theirs; as a celebration of children and their infinite possibilities and eventual transformations; as a cycle in which death is as miraculousness as birth, and you’ll have plenty of fodder for grace and patience.