On Punch Bowls and Other Totems

My parents inform me that my grandmother has agreed to give away her punch bowl, but only on the condition she does so after the holidays. Her reason is simple: she wants to make me happy.

Growing up, my Christmas days began with reveling in Santa’s generous bounty, followed by breakfast at my grandmother’s house, followed by an afternoon nap, followed by dinner at my grandmother’s house. Essentially, my job was to receive gifts and eat. Luckily, I am very, very talented at both tasks. A staple of Christmas dinner for many years has been a (non-alcholic) punch served on a structurally questionable card table used as the official “kids’ table.” My grandmother sets out an assortment of crackers, cheeses, and chocolates, as well as the punch. I love the punch; no Christmas would be complete without it. I’m pretty sure I’ve made myself ill on the punch a time or two. Again, I’m good at gluttony.

Now, relatives have, for unknown reasons, requested the punch bowl, and my grandmother — no longer at the height of her hosting powers — has agreed to gift the punch bowl, but only on the condition that she has it for the holidays this year. I’ll be home for Christmas, and my grandmother wants me to enjoy the punch out of the punch bowl one last time. Cue sweet memories, touching music, and warm hugs.

Sure, you can make the punch in any bowl, but as my grandmother and everyone else knows, over time, objects can become totems, taking out-sized importance in the course of our lives, infused with meaning beyond the superficial.  It’s not clear why the human animal engages in this behavior, but we do. It’s not just a punch bowl, it’s a representation of happy Christmas memories and family traditions.

Once we grant these special powers to objects, it can be difficult to part with them. As I spent my day off today cleaning out our garage, I was confronted, time and time again, with objects long-buried in plastic storage containers but still alive with connections to the past. My pre-teen comic books, the wooden Indian souvenir from my role in the Agatha Christie play ‘Ten Little Indians,” the t-shirt my junior high classmates signed for me at the mock United Nations when I was Secretary of the Security Council, the rubber bouncy ball I hid in my palm and passed to the college president as I received my diploma as part of an annual class prank. Paper, wood, cotton, and rubber, but then again so much more. If lost to me today, life would go on without issue, but, every now and again, it’s nice to take them out of the crates and take a spin down memory lane. For a few moments, these totems render the ephemeral present again.

My Christmas punch will almost certainly be accompanied by rolled bananas, baked beans, iced tea, and a long stretch on old green shag carpet. These are the things that are the chorus to the holiday song of my life. I don’t need the punch bowl to enjoy the holidays, but, knowing that my grandmother cares enough to hold in place that small detail for me for another holiday season, well, that’s what you call love.

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