Remembrance of Things Bagpiped...

This "what I did at the weekend" post is one week late, but bagpipes and mild hysteria were promised, so bagpipes and mild hysteria you'll get. Cast your mind back to Memorial Day weekend, Saturday... Being of the class of parents with small child that needs amusing, we now feel that familiar urge to do-something-as-a-family when holiday weekends come up. This "something" should ideally refer to a little more than having a kegger on the back deck while intermittently turning the garden hose on for the kids--though this in and of itself can be a worthwhile and rewarding activity for the whole family.

So, when invited by some old friends to go to Michigan's own "Scotland, USA" for their annual Highland Festival Parade (yes, that's right--Highland Festival. In Michigan. Kilts, Tossing Cabers. The Lot.) both Huz and myself greeted the idea with our trademark enthusiasm--deep cynicism ("what, watch a bunch of midwesterners who take deep pride in their celtic roots prance around in tartan?") Yes, we have black hearts and empty souls.

Anyway, we decided to make the trek up for the good of the boy because "let's face it, what else are we going to do on a Saturday morning?" and even if we think the parade is a bit sad, he'll think it's magic. Oh, and at least I can blog about it in sartorial-style if it's really lame.

When we arrived on the edge of town, we parked and made the trek up Main Street to meet up with our friends and find a spot to gawp. As we picked through people, I was already jealously eyeing everyone's portable chairs and coolers and wondering at how people just seem to be utterly prepared for such occasions (this was a sentiment that repeated itself throughout the event as I continuously asked our friends questions like "do you have any diaper wipes?" "have you got any tissues?" "do you have a spare juice box?" "do you have any crackers?" and "can I borrow that sunblock?" Yes, as prepared parents, we were stellar).

I have to say, the atmosphere of the whole thing was actually quite exciting at this stage. Main Street, like most midwest downtowns is depressingly devoid of much activity ordinarily, but that day it was transformed into a sun-drenched and nostalgic vision of middletown America, exuding Patriotism (Tartan, Stars, Stripes, Mullets) and general goodwill. I even slipped into a diner before the parade began and bought eight homemade cinnamon rolls for 3 bucks (3 bucks!!) and we celebrated that such mom-and-pop rarities still existed as we gorged ourselves on sugar and dough.

My cynicism, utterly vanished as I got caught up in the moment and (as-is-my-wont) congratulated myself for coming up with whole idea and insisting we come because this was just the sort of "family thing" we should be doing more of.

The parade began with the obligatory siren wail of the local Fire Truck, which makes its way slowly and LOUDLY up the street. So what if we're covering our ears and considering the potential long-term hearing loss implications for our wee ones? Our three year olds are eating this shit UP. And the entertainment keeps coming--lackluster county fair queens and their courts tossing candy to the crowd... local politicians and their opponents attempting to glad-hand every single person in the fucking crowd, all while tossing candy to the crowd, decorated floats and cars, some of which displayed great creative effort (Under the Sea, Puppy Love, Family Values/Family Freedom themes--all excellent) and others which should not have bothered (Oh, it's someone in their car. with stuffed toys in the backwindow. Quick!! they're chucking tootsie rolls).

I personally felt that some of the local teenage dance troupes, who did a great job choreographically, let themselves down with the en masse white baggy-t-shirt and black leggings combo. What's wrong with a bit of glitter, for god's sake? Still, it was uproarious fun, and the ecstacy experienced by my son who was having sweets hurled at him left right and center and scavenging on the ground for a stray pack of smarties was something to be cherished.

And then the freaking bagpipes… The first wave of pipers and their affect on me found me utterly unprepared. One minute I am waving frantically at the Shriner's motorcycle formation (also excellent) and the next minute I hear the mournful cacophony of the highland band and I suddenly and inexplicably feel the swell in my chest and begin to sob softly to myself--I was thankfully shielded by sunglass, and so quietly shifted back behind our group to conduct a little bit of "what the fu..?" soul-searching.

Quite seriously. I was utterly overcome with emotion, though I had always maintained that I hated bagpipes. Loathed them, having been made to stand and watch many a British military parade in my youth. I have even been serenaded by a lone pipe player in the enclosed indoor space of an Army Barracks bar--and let me tell you, this itself can produce a pavlovian aversion. And then I realized that this was precisely why I was snivelling. It was a pure Proustian moment, where a mere screeching sound triggered some kind of nostalgic, snot-ridden free-for-all.

I realized that many of the moments of my past have a fricking bagpipe medley for a soundtrack. Though I am not a military brat, my Grandfather was British army-through-and-through--the quintessential retired Sergeant Major with ruddy face, handlebar mustache, and talent for shouting at the top of his voice directly in your face. Weekends with Nan and Granddad invariably involved attending some airshow at the local barracks, where we would watch the R.A.F. Red Arrows streak the sky, and Granddad would tut-tut to himself about the sloppy formation of the marching drills. “Call that bloody marchin’? He might as well be wearin’ a bloody tutu.”

And the bagpipes? Like choirboys and Pavarotti, the bagpipes would always get him going. The cantankerous old sod would not show an ounce of affection to a family member unless soused out of his skull on whisky, but stone cold sober he would staunchly let the tears slide down his face as he stood to attention when the Royal Marine pipers went by. A few years later when he became Chief Yeoman Warder (ok. Beefeater) of the Tower of London, he and Nan lived right there in the Tower accommodations. In case you didn’t know, as well as brilliantly morbid tourist destination bar-none, the Tower is home to an Army barracks that houses her majesty's troops year round.

This means bagpipes at dawn. Bagpipes at the changing of the guard. Bagpipes when the Queen’s got people in. Bagpipes at Sunday Lunch in the Tower Club (a.k.a. beefeater & family watering hole). (Incidentally, also the first place I was officially drunk, Granddad liking to make sure his grandkids are treated “like grownups” by being given liberal amounts of alcohol at the age of 14. Also, not surprisingly, first site of personal en masse public humiliation involving “robotic dancing.” A tale I will not go into here, but will muster the courage to recount another time). All bagpipes all the time.

I am not given to tears. Or at least, I am not given to tears flowing unwarned in public situations (unless you count the time I caught sight of myself 2 months postpartum in a shop window once, but that’s hardly the same thing…). My grandfather was an incredibly difficult man, and is now given over to Altzheimer’s. But my crying was not about that. It was wholly more selfish.

Here I stood in “Scotland USA” on Main Street America, and the tears slid down my face too. Because amid this collective yearning for a simulated past, I suddenly got so fucking homesick. And my life and my golden boy were so quintessentially American and there was no going back to my own ceremonial and warped British past, except through a reminiscence brought on by bagpipes. And I felt sorry for myself.

Or maybe it was the pregnancy hormones and too much sun.


bubandpie said...

The first place I heard bagpipes (and the only place for many years) was at my grandparents' cottage in Muskoka. There was a man at a cottage across the lake who would haul out the pipes at sunset and the notes would come floating over the water. So beautiful. Bagpipes bring me to tears every time (though I AM the kind of person who cries at basically every opportunity).

Great post.

mama_tulip said...

Bagpipes always get me all sorts of teary, always.

Mom101 said...

Suddenly I feel so freakin American and so freakin BORING. OUr whole culture is pretty much coopted from all others. This sounds like an amazing time.

Wonderful essay (as always).

sween said...

I'm from Nova Scotia, so bagpipes are practically thrown in our cribs with us at birth.

I still remember moving to Toronto after university, being lonely and broke, and coming across an honest-to-goodness bagpiping busker, playing on the corner of Bay and King.

I stood there for an hour, just feeling sorry for myself.

Joel said...

Bagpipes remind me of my high school. We were the Highlanders or Scotties which is only funny because the school was right in the middle of Central California which has about as much connection to Scotland and the Scots as it does to the top ten places in America to live. None! While I have grown to enjoy and appreciate the Scottish traditions it was tough in high school being forced to root for the "Scotties" when playing the likes of the "Patriots," or "Knights," or "Tigers." It's the kind of thing that promotes inferiority complexes and physical altercation.

Mega Mom said...

I attended just such a parade recently, but no bagpipes. You aren't alone, I've been known to weep for NY from only 733 miles away :)

mothergoosemouse said...

Great storytelling - loved it from beginning to end. That is so cool about your grandfather - have you posted more stories about him that I haven't yet read?

I get homesick for New York at the oddest times (even though it's my adopted home). I can hardly imagine moving half a world away from home like you did.

neva said...

well color me impressed!

i thought we were gonna hear some bawdy story of men in free-flowing kilts, bag pips a'wailing, uh...cabers a'tossin'... you know, silly shit. instead here you go and give us a lovely, thoughtful essay on a slice of your life-gone-by.

and i LOVED it. but then, i love you! your imagery is impeccable... and the emotions you managed to elicit from me were surprising. my eyes welled up as i found myself empathizing with that emotional rush you must have felt as those bands marched past.

thanks for sharing such an interesting slice of your life... (or a scary peek at your hormones in action, whatever the case may be!) BRILLIANT! : D

Jenny said...

I get the same way at Octoberfest Czech Festivals. They start playing the oompa-pa music and I'm back at my grandparents house. Then I realize that I'll never really be back there and that now theat they're gone I'll never even know the names of the czech bands that we always danced to when I was little. It's kind of lost forever.

I feel a little lost too.

macboudica said...

I get that way over marches. I grew up in a small town that was Home to the Father of Flag Day. All year the town had about 50 people in it except on Flag Day (June 15 usually). On Flag Day, the town bursted with people to see the grand parade(haha that's a joke. The parade was so hokey). I was even in the local school band portion one year (the band director threatened that if we didn't show up we would flunk the whole year--still only about 12 people showed up). Anyway, when I was little I thought it ws so cool that our sleepy town was actually known for something. As I grew older, the parade/spectacle came to represent how ass backwards and screwed up our town and my family was.

zeldafitz said...

Oh my God, Joy, that is THE MOST BEAUTIFUL POST and I love and cherish every single solitary word of it. People natter on about "perfect posts" and all that tommyrot (do you like my faux British-ese here?) but THIS, m'dear, is the real deal. From the unprepared Mommyhood--pass me a diaperwipe--to the lovely rendering of your grandfather to your lovingly detailed homesickness. You da bomb, mama. No lie.

sunshine scribe said...

What a beautiful post.

We Canucks follow the brits around like lost puppies some times. The university I went to had bag pipes playing daily and more htan one of my friends had bag pipes at their wedding. They can be so hauntingly beautiful.

kittenpie said...

oh god, the pipes get me every time, I'm not sure why. Maybe it's their constant presence in every somber occasion - memorial parades, funereal marches, and the like. Maybe it's that they sound a little eerie and mournful themselves. But yeah, I feel that weird swelling in my chest that means a bubble of a sob will force its way up my tightening throat any second. I just don't know why.