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Leaving Home

by Kristin Nord

He has decorated his bedroom bulletin board one last time -- with postcards of his favorite places in Nova Scotia, and the recent reviews of his debut as a performing artist at a local pub. His 18th birthday has been a significant turning point for him, and hes written the various colleges that have accepted him, announcing tersely, he will not be furthering his education at this time. 
      Instead he is bound for The Maritimes, for a historic garrison city, where he will dress each day in the uniform of a 78th Highlander, in yards of MacKenzie tartan set off by brass buttons that he will polish each and every morning. Midday and weekday  afternoons he will play the Great Highland Bagpipe, for tourists who will have no idea that hes really a Connecticut boy; or that it is unlikely he will ever be sent to war.
      In his short lifetime he has had several passions:  sweet corn and well-done roast beef, a string of sailboats, and stories that have taken him to far-off places and examined some of the eternal issues we all face. Yet the Highland bagpipe, this great beast of an instrument, with its accompanying tales of tunes and battles, has loomed above all else in recent years...that and the piping world, where he has found police officers and solicitors, teachers and factory workers struggling to master  Lords Lovats Lament; The Bicker and  Too Long in this Condition.
       I remember the shy,  tow-headed nine-year-old fighting back tears of frustration as he struggled to stretch his fingers over the holes of a practice chanter, the reedy recorder-like instrument that all students begin on. In time, he became an accomplished player, for whom an instrument might actually become a vehicle of deliverance. His playing matured, and earned him an unusual window on the world. Though like the funeral or wedding director, hes sometimes seen people at their sleaziest...whether it was the mayoral candidate, who ducked invoices for a year after our child marched and piped for his campaign in the pouring rain;  or the nouveau Gold Coast matron, who was nasty to the help and coerced him into playing three hours past the time they had agreed upon at a New Years Eve party.
     On the other hand, there are memories I suspect he will treasure forever:   the hilltop performance he gave last summer for the descendants of Alexander Graham Bell overlooking the Bras DOr Lakes on Cape Breton Island. Or the mini-concerts for his birdlike grandmother in the last months of her life, when we sought to transcend out the oppressively cheerful Quaker nursing home. With his brother on bodran, the Irish drum , and Matt on shuttle pipes, wed shut the door and pretend we had gathered for a party at Grammys, in her little Bucks County house, the way wed always done. 
    Arriving in Halifax, as we help him settle into his first apartment;  he suddenly seems younger, baby-faced. He surveys the empty living space, and looks out the 13th floor window at the skyline of the first city hes lived in.
     The next morning I imagine him carrying his music case along the tree-lined streets, past the narrow multi-colored Victorians with bay windows. Hell pass the Public Gardens, with its serpentine borders dating back in style to Queen Victorias time, before finally scaling the steep hill to The Halifax Citadel, the star-shaped fortress and a national historic site, where hell earn his keep.
     By the time he calls us a few weeks later, he has gotten The Citadels repertoire under his belt. Hes ventured downtown on free evenings, catching acts from a recent jazz festival, and strolling along the waterfront. Halifax-- with its outdoor concerts and cafes, its museums, its outdoor theater,  seems to suit him.
     Before weve parted  hes handed me a book by the Canadian short story writer, Alistair MacLeod, steering me to  a story that is a particular favorite of his. Often as a family, we have shared books as a way of sharing love, and provoking ideas.
    The story begins with a boy on his 18th birthday, chafing at the morning daily rituals of the household he is determined to leave. The character will travel many miles only to look back, and to realize that he will carry his family and its values with him.
    Are you learning a lot ? his father asks him on the night he calls. I am on the extension, listening in.
    Oh yes, he assures him.
    Would you do it again? -- a traditional family question, shorthand to gauge conviction.
    Yes, he says. I hear happiness in his voice as he begins to make his way in the world, and a slight wistfulness in ours, as we are left in the wings.

Matthew N. Phelps, a 1990 high school graduate, is the current Grade 1 Champion Supreme for the United States Eastern Pipe Band Association. He is a serious top level amateur competitor and a member of the Regional Halifax Pipes and Drums in Nova Scotia, the only Grade 1 band on the Eastern Seaboard.

Photo: The piper, in full dress at the Halifax Citadel Historic Site and between performances, with Mother looking on.


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