It's colder in Scotland than in England, or at least, it was when we took the train north together. I was spending my junior year of college at Oxford, and my mother flew out to visit me after Christmas. It was a visit I look back on and wonder at -- it was that year that literally changed my life, the best year of college, the year of self-discovery and adventure, and my mom took the long plane trip over the ocean to visit me during the ten months I was away. My grandmother had left her some money, and she was determined to enjoy that trip to the fullest. I met her at Paddington Station, full of confidence in my understanding of the UK after three months of living in the terrace house in Marlborough Road.
The first night, we stayed in a student-rate hotel in Belgravia or something like that, and I don't think either of us slept a wink. We saw Cirque du Soleil in the Albert Hall. She got to hear me sing in the chorus for Mozart's Requiem at St. Martin in the Fields. We toured the Tower.
A dear friend was in England, visiting family, and had extra days left on her BritRail pass. When she headed home, she gave us the pass. What does one do with free time, some inherited cash, and free rail travel? One goes to Scotland, to Glasgow.
It was my mother's second trip to Scotland, my first. We arrived at night, but it could have been late afternoon. It's dark in January in Scotland. We found a hotel, settled in for the night, and planned our adventure. We had a few days before I had to be back for the start of term, when she'd meet my friends and choir mates and drink with us in the college bar and endear herself to everyone.
I can see our visit in flashes -- the extravagant meal in a beautiful restaurant, rose pouchong tea surrounded by Charles Rennie Mackintosh design, the dark stone of the cathedral -- but what came back to me full force this weekend as I listened to the Battlefield Band on Prairie Home Companion, was that we attended a concert with bagpipes and fiddles and a full orchestra. I think it was Phil Cunningham's Highlands and Islands Suite, maybe? I don't know for sure. All I know is that the moment when the band fell away and the pipes took over, that characteristic change of rhythm from skipping to skirling, sounding through my car's stereo on Saturday made me break down in sobs, as January, 1997, slammed back into my mind. Funny, though, that it was that memory, and not the dozens of other times we listened to the pipes together. Mom loved bagpipes; we shared that love. I was glad to find a piper for her funeral last spring. How could we send her onto the Low Road, without the sound of mourning and battle and victory and longing that the pipes have?
My mother's birthday is this Saturday. My stepdad is hosting a dinner in her honor, and some of us who loved her will gather and eat and drink and laugh and cry. She was loved by, and loved, so many -- there were not enough chairs in the funeral chapel for everyone who came to her funeral -- and I wish I could call her and ask about that concert. Instead, I guess I'll buy a recording of the Highlands and Islands Suite, and let the music carry me back again to the darkness of midwinter Glasgow, and to the brilliant light and warmth of my mother's love.
Sara is a storyteller, writer, artist, teacher, wife, mother, and singer living in Minnesota. I write about storytelling, and about living a life with stories.