Sunday, April 20, 2014

Totems (Easter Sunday)

My family splits holidays up in terms of hosting. My sister, Stacia, will have people over for Thanksgiving brunch; my sister, Melissa, always hosts Christmas, but Easter is always ours.  Every year my brother and I organize what we call the Egg Hunt of Low Expectations.  What this means is that he and I get a beer, go out into the front yard of my house and throw eggs will-nilly all over.  At one time we used to try to be clever and hide them, but now that the kids are older we don’t put that much effort into it. We hide a few but mostly we just litter them everywhere and allow the kids to engage in a sort of “Hunger Games” exercise where they try to find the Golden Egg that holds a dollar in it.

We started this game when my father first got sick.  It was a time where my brother and I could talk about what was going on with Dad and we could discuss what was best to do for him.  After our dad died we kept the tradition because we just like to be with each other and the kids seem to really want that Golden Egg and the bragging rights that come with finding it.  They hang on to that egg when they win it.

Tonight after another wonderful day with family, some mine and some my wife’s, I started thinking about totems, those things that you hold on to dearly because they have some form of important meaning to you.  My wife, Karen, accuses me of being a hoarder because I sometimes have trouble letting go of things.   I insist that I just collect things of meaning but when she points out that I still have clothes and earth shoes from the seventies, boxes of bolts that don’t fit anything,  lots of random knickknacks, I must admit that I might have a bit of a problem.  I mean, who really needs to keep a ceramic Lightbright Christmas tree on their desk year round? And yet, I refuse to get rid of it. If someone pressed me to tell them what the meaning of it is, I would be embarrassed to say that its only meaning is that it is my nightlight.  I don’t like complete darkness.  I have a tendency to run into things and fall down when I can’t see in the dark. Darkness frightens me. The stupid Lightbright Christmas tree gives me a sense of security.

In our garage studio I have shelves that are filled with things I have collected during my travels across America and abroad, pictures, pez dispensers, things that have been given to me, etc.  The shelves over the printer/scanner are affectionately called “Tom’s Shelves of Crap.”  This is a small depiction of them.


 Everything on those shelves though, like the mixed media collages I make, have a special meaning for me and I wouldn’t part of any of the “crap” that is there.

There are a few special totems in my world. In the train master’s desk that my wife lovingly gave me in the first year of our marriage, I keep two baseballs. One was signed by Sweet Swinging Billy Williams, former player for the Chicago Cubs.  Ever since I was a young man he was always my favorite Cub. The other is a signed ball from George Brett.  These are those balls. 



The George Brett ball is important to me because when I was a kid I told my dad that I needed a baseball mitt.  He said to me, “You not much of a ball player. Why do need that?” I said, "All the other guys play ball out in the field park and I’d like to play but I don’t have a mitt."  He said, “I’ll think about it.” The next night when he came home from work he brought with him two George Brett mitts. One was for me, and one was for him. When he gave me mine he said, “Let’s work a little bit on your throwing and catching first.”  Playing throw and catch with my dad, with my mother, my sisters, my neighbor, and then playing ball with the guys are some of my best memories.There is another reason why these baseballs are important to me, but I'll get to that shortly.

When the neighborhood kids, or even adults, come into my studio in the garage they often remark that there are always stacks of quarters sitting everywhere or scattered on the floor.  Here’s the story of the quarters, which will tie into the baseballs.

One night when my grandparents came to visit, my grandmother and I were watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after everyone else had gone to bed. On the show that night a guy won the Guinness World Record for stacking quarters on his bare elbow and them into his open palm.  He did a hundred that night.  My grandmother asked me, “Tommy, do you think we could do that?”  I replied, “Maybe not that many but it would fun to see if we could do any.”  Grandma Zudie got a bunch of quarters from her purse and we started trying.  After a lot of practice she got to where she could do ten. I got to where I could do five.  After my grandparents went home to Indiana, I kept practicing flipping quarters off my elbow and eventually got to where I could do twenty.  Throughout my life, along with being able to recite the names of all the Old Testament books in order, being able to flip quarters off my elbow earned me a lot of free beers.

As we talk about totems here is why the baseballs and the quarters are important to me.

When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease I started doing some things ritually. Every morning when I wake up, I take my medicine, and before I do anything else I go to my desk, take my two signed baseballs, and I juggle them between my hands. Juggling two baseballs is not really that complicated but it does loosen stiff and shaky hands, provides balance, and lets me know that I am doing OK.  If I can get a rhythm going, I feel better that I can go and face the day. 

The thing I do every night before I go to bed is that I stand in the garage studio, take a stack of quarters and try to flip them off my elbow. If I can catch them in my palm, I feel like I’m going to be fine. Even if I can’t get more than one, and spread the rest across the floor, I can rest easy…with or without the ceramic Christmas tree...because I know I can face the darkness and I am going to be OK tomorrow.

Totems and rituals, like those associated with Easter, are important because they give us comfort, hope and courage.  There are two other totems I have that do that for me.  One is a leather-bound book I keep on my nightstand and pick up to read frequently when I need to. It was given to me in 1972 on the occasion of my first communion.  Not everyone needs a Bible next to them but like the Lightbrite Christmas tree, but sometimes I do...it's another way to fight off darkness.

The other totem sits in a lacquered, velvet lined wooden Chinese box that my sister-friend, Cheri, found for me when we were visiting an antique fair in the town where our families always camped.  In some ways that box is a totem for me as well, but what is contained in there is what I am most fond of.  Along with a watch of my grandfather’s, there sits a little silver Celtic cross that was given to me on my confirmation. I used to wear it on a chain around my neck up through college and then I got scared I might lose it, so it went in the box.  Now I only wear it on Christmas and Easter, and other times when I want to feel close.  There are other times that I just sit on the floor, take it out, hold it, and think.

There are those totems in our lives that we hang on to because of great memories, some are kind of crap, and then there are those totems in our lives that we keep and play with because they help us feel alive and make us feel that we’re going to be OK.