It was like a scene from a movie…or a play…
Sometimes these things happen in our lives that just take our breath away. I had one of those this weekend.
The story, behind this link, because it’s not short…
This weekend we spent the 4th of July break “up north”. In Michigan lingo, that’s the place that’s usually somewhere in the Northern part of the Lower Peninsula. In our case, it was a small town called Atlanta, Michigan where my parents have a house on the Thunder Bay river, in the woods. Jeanne, the kids, my parents and I spent a very nice few days visiting, swimming, fishing, playing cards, picking blueberries, relaxing and laughing. Their house is pretty isolated on the river – you can see a few other homes to the sides, but it’s very private and serene. Directly across the river is a Bed and Breakfast, but you can’t see it – it’s hidden by the forest, so if you didn’t know it was there you’d never guess it existed.
On Monday, we were all at the table eating, and somehow the conversation turned to my Grandpa Hall. My kids were asking about my parents, and my grandparents, and we were discussing all of the family. Then the conversation focused for a bit on my mom’s father, Harry Hall. It was nice – to be honest, it’s been well over a dozen years since he passed away, and this was the longest conversation I’d had about him in many years.
Grandpa Hall, my grandfather on my mothers side, passed away a long time ago. There were bagpipes at his funeral.
Born and raised in Scotland, he never lost his Scottish brogue when he moved here. Oh, it lessened a lot, but we heard it. And I loved listening to him talk – he was the only person I knew who called everyone “lass” and “laddie”, and if it wasn’t big it was “wee”.
He would sing lots of Scottish songs all the time, like “Roamin’ in the Gloamin” and “When I was 21” or “The Penny Whistle Song”.
He was a fan of baseball – I have his Detroit Tigers warmup jacket to this day. I wear it to Tigers games on chilly Spring days. He was an even bigger fan of hockey, and the Detroit Red Wings were his passion.
He was the one who, at my High School Graduation as I was walking the stage to get my diploma, shouted for all the world to hear, “Smile, Tony!”
He was there when my dad took me up north to learn about deer-hunting, and he never let me live down my first (horribly botched, I might add) experience of seeing a deer in the woods. I can still hear him good-naturedly laughing and quoting my forest-shaking shouts of “Dad! Look! A Deer!!” as my youthful inexperience and enthusiasm got the better of me in the middle of the woods! (That deer? Got away pretty cleanly.)
When I took my trip, in college, traveling around England, Scotland and Wales, he gave me his brothers addresses and phone numbers and made sure I visited them just outside of Glasgow. He called in advance, and told them his grandson was coming, to get ready for family! And when I got there, I had the most wonderful time meeting these distant relatives – their thick accent was so hard to understand that we had to speak very slowly to each other the whole visit, but we had a fantastic time!
The last time I saw him was when Jeanne and I went to Florida to visit him and my grandmother, shortly before we were married.
Many of these things were discussed at the table…some weren’t, and other tales were spun instead. It’s a funny thing, memory. The way we can forget how much we know about something, or someone.
Eventually, of course, the topic turned to other things, and soon the meal ended and the conversation was forgotten.
Until that evening.
That evening, the family was sitting on the deck, enjoying the sunset. I was down near the river, getting the fire going for roasting marshmallows and s’mores. A quiet, beautiful night. The sun was setting across the river and a little to the left, the water was sparkling oranges and reds. At that point the river is wide, about 100 yards, and moves slowly, so it was just gently rippling and reflecting the sky and the sunset. It was one of those evenings that makes you take deep breaths through your nose, drinking in the world, and holding it for a moment before a long, gentle, sighing exhale.
Suddenly, in the middle of this calm, came the sound of bagpipes.
Bagpipes. Playing a traditional Scottish song.
I looked up from the fire. I looked around – it was coming from the river. I looked to the house, and everyone else had the same look I probably had, as we wondered what the heck was going on.
Then, across the river, appeared a man.
There, in the middle of the woods, was a man playing the bagpipes.
Dressed in jeans (or so they appeared, at that distance) and a red shirt, he appeared in a clearing directly across from us, and gently paced the bank of the river, playing his bagpipes.
We stood, mesmerized. Listening to the beautiful music, and soaking in the amazing magic of it all.
Hours earlier, we had held the longest conversation about my Grandfather that any of us had held in years, and now a man appears in the middle of the woods playing the bagpipes. In fact, it was not only the longest conversation about Grandpa Hall I’d had in years, it was probably the first time any of us had mentioned him in quite some time.
The man finished his song. We all, snapping from our frozen stares, burst into applause. He looked up, waved at us from across the river, and launched into Scotland The Brave.
I sat down by the fire. I watched, across the sparkling river, the stranger in the woods play his bagpipes, and I thought of my Grandpa. I wondered at the way the world worked, with our conversation and this amazing concert happening on the same day, and I marveled at life. I marveled at our world, the things in it and the things beyond it.
He played for about 30 minutes. After each song we applauded wildly, and he’d wave, and launch into another song. When he played Amazing Grace, I don’t mind admitting that the music and the emotion got to me, and my eyes watered.
Then he finished, and as we applauded and cheered, he gave a gentle wave, and walked away into the woods.
My mom joined me by the river. For a moment we just looked at the water, and the sunset, quietly.
“That was really neat” she said.
And she was right.