I thought the concept of a spirit animal was a joke to be grouped with crystals and having your aura read. The only time we thought about being an animal is when my kids were little and we would fly Southwest airlines. We would play a game while we waiting to board in their lettered lines. The passengers who got “A” boarding passes were aardvarks, slowly moving, stopping, and starting frequently as they sniffed out the best aisle or window seats then took their time burrowing in. B’s were badgers, who rushed forward when the B light blinked on with teeth and claws bared, pouncing on any open desirable seat. C’s were coyotes, slinking into the plane, knowing they were the lowest of the low. Aardvarks ignored them, badgers snarled and snapped at them and flight attendants prodded them to “take any remaining seats.” Being a coyote could ruin your whole trip.
Last August, while in Alaska, I visited a Tlingit village, saw the old totem poles and learned that spirit animals were part of the new world’s very old shamanistic traditions. Meant to represent the traits and skills that you are supposed to learn or have. What was my spirit animal? What powerful, cunning, or courageous beast was I supposed to learn emulate? I pondered on it and realized the answer was….The Great American Mutt.
Like many mutts, my breeding was random and without design. On one side, I was red, white and blue, stars and stripes, stars and bars. Eligible for membership in both the daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy due to the military service of several paternal ancestors. And on the other side, I’m second generation eastern European immigrant. Ellis island, NY tenements, factory towns and steel mills in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio. My relatives probably suffered insults and assaults because they looked different, had a funny accent when they spoke English (if they spoke English at all), and worshiped differently.
My brother and I owe our mixed up making to World War II. At 17, my dad, John Henry Austin joined the Marines and suddenly found himself far from the swamps of Florida and across the country and across the world. My mother, Mary Ribarich and her best friend Carmel saw a chance to escape by taking jobs in factories that the men had left. They made plane brakes and tires and based on conversations I heard when they were in their 80’s, were probably the Croatian/Italian version of Lavern and Shirley. Then Carmel heard that the war department was looking for young women who could type to take to Washington DC. And I imagine Carmel said “Mary, Let’s go! Bright lights, the big city and handsome men in uniforms.” And they went and my mom met my dad and they got married after my dad promised the priest that he would abandon his Baptist roots and raise any kids as Catholics. My dad’s surviving siblings also embraced change. My uncle Quib married Annie the Italian. Aunt MaryLee married Al the Jew and little sister Merab married Larry the Yankee. This last was probably the hardest marriage to take for some of their kin down in the south.
They all had kids so my brother and I had lots of muttish cousins and we learned about different traditions, holidays and probably a few cuss words in various languages. When I was a baby, my Dad’s dad hit hard times. For the next nine years, he joined our gypsy caravan moving from base to base every couple of years. While he never quite understood the Catholic traditions that ruled our house, he adapted and took over cooking on Fridays to keep us connected to our southern roots with fried fish, collard greens, and cornbread or hushpuppies (always with honey).
Years later, my dad retired from the Marine Corps and we left our last military home at Camp Pendleton in southern California. He moved us to Harlingen on the tip of Texas so he could teach at the Marine Military Academy. The Rio Grande Valley was overwhelmingly Hispanic and could have been culture shock to my brother and I but it all seemed strangely familiar. Their conjunto music had a distinctive polka beat, the food like menudo seemed like a spicier tripe that was popular with my mother’s family. And we had the catholic thing down cold.
We settled in just fine thanks for our Mutt DNA. And it’s been that way for my whole life. New town, new job, new friends, new school. It’s just another dog park and my inner mutt says, “Perk up your ears, wag your tale and do the universal doggie bow. It’s time to have some fun!”