The totem pole

Somewhere during those hazy days of summer when I was ten or eleven or twelve, my parents, feeling the pull of yet another empty space in their lives, took on the project of building a totem pole in a corner of our yard.

This would have made more sense if we had had any Native American heritages among us. It would have made more sense if we had lived in a place where any Native American culture and history at all were large parts of the local culture or if my parents had had any interest in any of the above. As it was, this new hobby came as quite a surprise not only to me but to all of my parents’ friends.

The totem pole project began with a large party, complete with a lovely summer evening and several chisels of various widths adorned with ribbons, the varnish of their handles shining in the sun. Mallets accompanied the chisels, and everyone was instructed to chisel out at least one small strip of wood on one of the sections. People wandered around the section of lawn on which the log that would become the totem pole lay on its trestles to the sound of their own talk and the sound of ice cubes rattling in their tumblers of whiskey. No one’s hands slipped and gouged themselves: we lived a charmed life back then.

What it was to look like: eagles. Each section of the totem pole was of some variety of eagle. Some variety of bird, at least, with various forms of hooked beaks and shrugged-back wings. My father showed off the plans for the totem pole and sketches of what it was to look like once it was finished and set upright on the slight rise of hill nearby. My father had paid an architect friend of his to draw up the plans and presumably find the appropriate five or ten yard long log and haul it to the house. I had no idea that architects drew up plans for anything other than buildings, but I was a child and figured that this was yet some other aspect of the grown-up world that I hadn’t been exposed to yet and would understand much better in a few years. I also believed that in a short while I would see the finished totem pole towering above everything else in the yard.

The eagles of which it was made: why them? My mother had decided around then that her official favorite symbolic (totem?) animal would be an eagle. To that effect, two brick pillars had been built at either side of our driveway, each topped by an eagle, wings extended, beak open, facing each other across the asphalt. Some of her friends had totem animals of their own, turtles or whatever, that they were known by in their group. Mom had quite a look of satisfaction on her face when she mentioned that her friend B. had started calling her in a sort of affected way by the title of “Mrs. Eagle.” Pleased her to no end. Eagles were the best, she reasoned, and what she of course deserved. That cut above the rest, so to speak. Nobody else had anything so grand as an eagle.

And so we had a totem pole of eagles. Unformed eagles, that is, waiting to be chipped out of their log. After the unveiling party, my parents and I would often go out to the totem pole after dinner and chip away at it. Dad and I did, at any rate. I suppose Mom did as well. Then eventually Mom found it more important to stay back in the kitchen and do some cleaning up after dinner, and my father was drawn back to the den and his whiskey in its cold glass with the clicking of the ice cubes. In a couple of months, I was the only one who would ever try to pry off a sliver or two from the marked-off sections.

I don’t remember how long that would-be pole stayed out there in its corner of the yard. Eventually the wood cracked as it was seasoned by the years. I was a few days ago out to the land where our house had been and there are no traces either of it or the pole.