Looking for a Family Altar's Totem

Last December, my grand-father died. His breathing got shallow, he wasn’t hungry all of a sudden, then went to take a nap in his favorite chair. There, he slowly, and I hope painlessly, began to tune out a bit, fall asleep, and eventually cease to … live. In the days after his death, I helped a bit with the funeral preparations, and I take care of my nearly blind grand-mother once a week ever since. I spent a lot of time with my grand-parents. We were pretty close. I love them, and so I begin to crave for some kind of totem that keeps a piece of my grand-father’s live somewhere visibly in my life.

Early this year, I helped my grand-mother get rid of things that reminded her of the man she spent 68 years with – safe for a couple of weeks they didn’t see each other. Try to imagine that, a couple of weeks of being separated spread over the course of nearly 70 years! That’s a lot of seeing-each-other. Naturally, clothes had to go first so she didn’t see his shirts when getting dressed each morning anymore. I looked for hats that I could keep: My grand-father was starting to get bald as early as his mid-twenties, so he wore something to cover the skin on his head for protection for the most part of his life. Sadly, none of his signature hats fit me. I’d have loved to wear them.

That was about the only thing I could come up with for a while. Just today I read something that was eventually leading me to a piece about simple woodworking, hosted on the “Art of Manliness” blog. It’s about making a wooden do-it-yourself cufflink display. I don’t care much about cufflinks, and neither did my grand-father or father, for that matter. My grand-father was a glazier, or glasser, I don’t know which English term fits his vocation best. He wasn’t a fancy or particularly dapper fella, so he didn’t wear cufflinks ever during the 31 years of my life, as far as I can tell. He handed down the cufflinks he did have to me many years ago already, and they weren’t particularly important to him. There was no story, and there was no moment I know of where he wore them. Cufflinks aside, I really dig the idea of having the totem on display somewhere.

One thing did have a story, though. He once bought a pistol, a Beretta, on a Russian flea-market in Eastern Germany. Nobody ever shot it. I don’t know if it was functional. Owning firearms is prohibited by law in Germany anyway. I like to imagine he thought of this thing as a joke. It could’ve been funny for him to have a weirdly small and ultimately useless firearm tucked away in the back of his socks drawer. The way he obtained it, and the fact that he had to smuggle it back to West Germany, is so typical of him. My grand-father was a very tongue-in-cheek guy, always up to no good, telling me the weirdest things when I was a child. But he never hurt anybody with his jokes. They were harmless. Now he did serve during World War II, and maybe owning a gun reminded him of the times somehow. I never asked. The gun appears to have been disposed of, though, so that totally over-the-top candidate for a totem display is gone. That’s a pity, because the story behind the gun is so weird, and so him.

The quest for a totem turns out to be pretty hard, especially since it’s about a man who didn’t collect anything, who didn’t craft weird things for fun, who didn’t care for knickknacks. He cared for his family, and for gossip around town, and his dogs. He was a mostly quiet, but on occasion very socializable man who always happened to know the weirdest folks. That memory is precious, and ultimately intangible.

So why I am so obsessed with the concrete, with real-world things that occupy physical space. Why a totem, anyway? My father owns an antique German hunting pipe that belonged to his grand-father, and that proudly hangs on a wall. He hangs photographs of his ancestors and other family members in the near vicinity of it; it is part of what my parent call the family altar. There always has been one in the house for as long as I can remember. I think this is my (so far futile) attempt to continue this tradition.

Maybe the best kind of totem is going to be the tools of my grand-fathers vocation, the glass-cutting knifes and broad pencils. He was a man of doing, not talking or showing-off, after all.

I may not have a lot of time left to figure out something. We’re preparing to have my grand-mother move into an appartment in the house where my father lives, so she lives closer to family, especially the other kiddos of my dad. It’s a great opportunity for her. It also means we have to go through all her stuff before the move. This will inevitably result in someone throwing away or donate any leftover tools of my grand-father.

This also makes me wonder what my grand-children might want to keep on display of my belongings. I create software, that’s not an option, although you could print the source code as a poster, I guess. My printed technical books will likely be outdated and long out of print by then, and also not very interesting or original. I also draw and paint, but I paint so many things that it’ll be rather hard to pick a piece once I’m gone. There’ll be a painting for everyone, but will there be a single painting that is more me than the others? Will I leave interesting tools, maybe a very special pen, a fountain pen, or a brush, or a keyboard? Will my headgear fit the heads of my grand-children?

It’s weird that people just die, and that’s it. We bury them, and tell their stories. I’d really like to have something that my kids can one day point at and ask what the story behind that is, and then I can tell them about their long-deceased great-grandfather.

In Mark Rowland’s “The Philosopher and the Wolf” I read that we can honor the memory of our ancestors by recognizing the person we did become, and how they shaped our becoming this way. Ultimately, that’s probably the most important part of it all.