June 2, 2022

STORY: Belonging

Story by Gillian Breckell
Runner-up in the 'What Scotland Means to Me' writing competition

On the far side of the world from Scotland, my mother silently gave birth, clasping the hand of the midwife until their fingers were bruised and tender together. As I slithered painfully from her body, a few of my mother’s roots tore away from her, tangled into mine.

Children have an instinct to grow in harmony with their parents and surroundings, and I understood quite young that I followed three tunes. My father’s tune was whistled as he hammered and crooned when at rest. I grew to the songs of taniwhas and pohutakawas. My mother sang to The Proclaimers in the hot car, groceries rustling and sliding in the boot of the car, and yearned during Hogmanay for the lusty lungs of the bagpipes. I realised as I grew that her roots were stretched across the earth towards Scotland, and that her sense of belonging was fractured. There were thistles stitched into our home while ferns curled in the backyard, and my tongue knew words that my friends did not. Bagpipes woke a stinging sensation in my face as I watched her eyes focused far-away, and I warmed at her side as she talked into the telephone, her accent tilting until it lilted away from my childish ears. Scotland ran in my veins with a familiarity and comfort, yet it was almost mythical and unreal.

After a childhood vibrant with stories of travel, adulthood came to me with a restlessness, a sense of shallow roots searching and exploring. Eventually, curiosity won out and I found myself driving through my father’s homeland and on to my mother’s. At the border I looked out the window, looking for the Scotland I felt I knew so much about. Standing in the chill wind was a figure in tartan, the notes of his bagpipes torn and thrown by the wind. I wound along the roads of Scotland, and the land lay before me – a wild little beauty tossed up, only to be flattened again. The gorse tickled by the breathing of the hills, and granite skies and dark flat lochs spread wide, side-lit with slanted golden rays of sunlight. The Munros huddled in shrouds and lonely stags stood stock-still on the sepia-coloured moors. I waited, my soul open and roots exposed, yet felt only a hollow echo of longing, of belonging.

I returned to my mother on the far side of the world from Scotland. In the kitchen we stood shoulder-to-shoulder, two porcelain cups on the bench in front of us – one painted with thistles, the other in tartans. Crumbly, buttery shortbread flavoured the air. As the teapot sat squatly, steeping silently, I felt like a tourist in my mother’s home. Uncertain of where I truly belonged, I drank my tea, gathered myself into suitcases, and let my restlessness take me out into the world again.

Years passed and I adopted a new language, a new way of life. I laboured, grieving through the anniversary of my father’s death, through the night, and on into the next day. There I birthed my child on the other side of the world from my homeland and my mother. I did not give birth silently, and as my baby slithered painfully from my body, I gathered her roots carefully together, gently disentangling my own.

As my child grew, I took her small hand and flew over to my mother. There I sat, groggy from jetlag while I sipped tea from a cup painted with tartan, a thistle-embroidered cushion at my back. The summer morning poured in the windows, the air hot with the smell of dry grass and sun-baked apples. And in the light that filtered through the white net curtains, my mother rocked in her chair with my child curled on her knee.

“Are you my wee bairn?” she asked.  Her eyes crinkled, shining bright and blue when the sweet, high voice obediently piped back “och aye”.

I watched my mother begin to weave her roots into my daughter’s experiences. Closing my eyes, I heard the soft burr of her accent while cicadas chorused in the background and the tui fluted in the orchard. I felt a throb and realised that my roots were exposed and torn, and my body began to respond to the sounds and smells of my homeland with a wave of aching pain that I had never experienced before.

Weeks later, I gathered my daughter onto my lap, peering out the aircraft window to wave at the small figure of my mother behind the glass of the airport building. I entwined my fingers in her small fingers and begin to tell her stories, the first tentative tendrils of my history and home twisted in with memories of her grandmother.

The longing I recognised in my mother began to reverberate in me, and I started to understand. Scotland was far more than the artifacts my mother had gathered around her, or images come to life in a far-away land. Scotland was etched into my mother’s memories and soul from the day of her birth. It was a place where she had experienced joy and innocence, where she had created her understanding of the world. Scotland was stitched into her tongue and wound into her senses.

When my mother and Scotland ceased to be together, it left her with a sense of longing that she imprinted on me. As I was an off-shoot of her heart, she shared her life with me and Scotland became a part of my sense of being. Although I may not belong there, Scotland has been so tightly woven into my sense of my mother and her love. I will always have the fingerprints of cianalas on my soul, and her Scottish roots tangled in my own.

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