Thursday, October 03, 2013


I grew up during the low-tech days of record albums. My dad had a big music collection. He loved jazz, swing, and the big bands. I grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Errol Garner. And every now and then he’d pull out the music he loved the most – the bagpipes. He especially delighted in playing one of those albums on mornings when we were getting up for ski trips. My sister and I, sleeping like little stones, screamed in horror at the assault on our tender little ears when he put on some pipe and drum band and turned the volume up to full blast in order to wake us up.

Dad really did have a sadistic streak. He loved the old wooden hotels of the White Mountains and would take us on an old wooden hotel tour every summer. We would stop and marvel at Gray’s Inn (my favorite) and the pre-renovation Wentworth. Dad would give us a rundown on the history of each one.  Eventually we’d make our way up to the Mt. Washington, and go up and around and come back down through Berlin. The paper mills were still booming. It was before pollution controls. It was before air conditioning was a standard feature in cars. We would scream in horror at the assault on our tender little noses, and beg Dad to put up the windows. He would smirk as he drove through Berlin. The only thing that would have made his delight complete would have been the ability to play a bagpipe album at the same time, but sadly (for him) that technology was years away. 

Dad was never able to infect us with his enthusiasm for the music of our ancestors. An amateur history buff, he had a number of books on the history of Scotland, and our clan. All Bruces claim kinship to King Robert, the legendary freedom fighter. As a snotty teenager, I thought the music was awful and the food sounded worse. Haggis – OMG! And that was before I knew what it smelled like.

My father died in 1998, in the hospice wing of Exeter hospital. The hospice nurses were wonderful to us all, and suffered through hours of bagpipes droning away from my father’s room, with big smiles, pretending it was great.

It is.

I don’t know when it all changed for me, but in 2002, I found myself dragging David Emerson to the Highland Games at Loon Mountain. David had not grown up with exposure to the bagpipe, and couldn’t possibly have been prepared for all that awaited him that day. He bravely faced down all that plaid, and all that sound. He watched the tossing of the caber with delight. David marched off to the food tent, and came back saying words I never thought I’d ever hear strung together in a sentence: “They’re out of haggis.” We found a small band of wild men (and one wild woman) lurking in a corner playing loud drums and pipes. It was loud, tribal, and completely irresistible. I bought their CD. It was the first of what has become a small collection of bagpipe CDs. There is always at least one in the car, and usually more like half a dozen.

This year I hadn’t planned on going to the Games. I had several other commitments. Then a friend won tickets to the first day, and called and very generously asked me to join her. I got out my clan sash, and polished my father’s sterling silver clan badge. Wally would have giggled at thought of me with a clan sash. Add a clan badge, bagpipe CDs in the car, and a trip to Lincoln and he would have been clutching his sides and weeping with laughter. He and David are the ghosts whom I bring to the joyous celebration of all things Scot and many things Not. My ghosts were surely amused that I drove home through the fiery fall hills -  half deaf from being in the front of the stage while Albannach played just before we left.

Back in 2002, I spoke with the Bruce clan chief about the family motto: Fuimus, which means, “We were.” That sounded a little defeatist, I told him. Couldn’t we add “and we still are – or we might be again?” He just laughed at me – but surely the descendents of King Robert deserve better. (That holds true for the tartan as well.) Thanks to Braveheart (and its highly romanticized version of history) everyone loves King Robert. John McCain tried to claim that he was a descendent of Robert The, back in 2008 when he was running for president. His claim was speedily (and mockingly) debunked.

I don’t know when it all changed for me, but when my daughter and I go to visit the cemetery where my family is buried, we visit all of the graves, and usually have some offbeat offerings to leave at Wally’s grave – small toy tractors or trucks. And we park the car as close as we can to where my father is buried, and we roll down all the windows, open the sunroof and all of the doors and put on a bagpipe CD and turn the volume up as high as it will go.

Can the sound of those loud bagpipes reach all the way into the afterlife where my father can hear them? There is, of course, no way to know.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that while we are there we’re telling stories, we’re remembering, and he’s there with us for a while. We laugh. We cry a little. We remember – and we take a little of him with us when we go.

© sbruce 2013
published as a biweekly column in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper

1 comment:

victoria said...

I too was raised with jazz in the house - my Dad and I danced around the room to Duke Ellington on many occasions. My mom was Scottish, but the Scots in my family were somewhat proper, and the music in them died when my mom died, too young.

But the haunting melodies of Scottish folk music, and yes, the sound of the bagpipe, have always gotten through to me.

I recently got to celebrate my step-mother's life at her grave site. After reading your wonderful piece, am thinking I should have had Duke Ellington blasting from the nearby car. I know he would have loved setting it all to his favorite music.