We were put to bed early. My mother, the registered nurse, believed strongly in things like scrubbing away germs and getting a good night’s sleep. Sometimes we could still hear neighborhood children playing outside while we lay in bed with our baths taken, teeth brushed, and prayers said.
Downstairs my mother watched detective shows and my father graded papers in another room with the stereo turned low. I could hear strains of his music mixed with her TV sirens through the floorboards.
I was never what is called a good sleeper. I would lie awake for hours telling myself stories. Sometimes, halfway asleep, I could hear impossibly faraway music and watch scenes unfold like a life retelling itself. I wondered where they came from, these distracting snippets that almost seemed like distant memories. Some were so strong I could feel them in my body. In fact, as a young child I was sure I could “remember” having died and for years could only fall asleep curled defensively to protect my ribs and throat.
Music brought the strongest sense of recollection. My mother says the first time I heard the distinctive sound of bagpipes I was a preschooler. “You put your arms up like one of those highland dancers,” she says, “and you danced your little heart out.”
I didn’t encounter bagpipe music again until I was about eight years old. Hearing the strains of those grand pipes in a parade made feel as if I could almost recall dancing in a majestic hall with the stirring of pride that no danger could stifle. The music seemed to speak to my cells all the way to the marrow. It kept on speaking as the pipers marched by and the music faded away.
Since I had been warned about my overactive imagination I didn’t mention those half-remembered scenes. But I did pester my mother about bagpipes.
“It’s funny you are so interested in that music,” she said. “We don’t have any Scottish blood in our family.”
An apparent coincidence? The fact that our last name happened to be Piper. My mother said she thought the name had been changed from a German surname, Pfeiffer, many generations back.
* * *
As an adult I have no idea where those so-called memories came from. Most likely I was creating stories that seemed real to me. There are, however, other explanations. Morphic resonance, archetypal images, echoes of past lives.
Another intriguing possibility is genetic or ancestral memory. Because, as it turns out my maiden name, Piper, is Scottish after all. Recently our history was traced, and we know now that my father’s family tree is rooted securely in the soil of Scotland. Not a German branch to be found. In fact, we are related to legendary bagpipers as well as to some oddly-named royalty including Malcolm the Big-Headed.
These days I am surrounded by bagpipe music. My two teenage sons are in a pipe band, the Red Hackle Pipes and Drums, under the direction of Sandy Hain, a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch. I drive the boys and their buddies in the band to practices, parades, and highland competitions; my car overflowing with an odd mix of testosterone, exuberant conversation, and hairy knees jutting out from kilts.
Every week when I pull into the lot for bagpipe practice I see bumper stickers and window decals proudly proclaiming the drivers’ pride in calling him or herself by my family name: Piper. Even on the coldest evenings the sound pours through the brick walls. And every single time I feel the music in my cells, all the way to the marrow.
And yes, I still hear it in my dreams.
Throwback post. This piece was originally published in Bewildering Stories.