A Case of the Human Condition: Am I Scotch?* Or Midwestern?

My grandfather David Falconer in 1893. Photo by Ludington Studios

My Scotland-born grandfather David Falconer in 1893. Photo by Ludington Studios

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, Oakland Tribune, April 2, 1989

It was St. Patrick’s Day and Christina was hunting around for something green to wear. “How about your Scottish kilt,” I suggested.

“No,” was the reply. “It itches.”

“But you could put a slip under it. After all, you are Scottish.”

“I am? What’s Scottish?”

“Well,” I began, pleased that my daughter was taking an interest in her cultural heritage. “Scottish people wear kilts. They play bagpipes. And, let’s see. They drink Scotch . . . . ”

I was stumped. In a few short sentences, I had summed up for the next generation my entire body of knowledge of things Scottish. Christina’s heritage had been reduced to one slightly

Sandy Lake Michigan beach with bathers. Photo by BF Newhall

Where I come from — a beach on Lake Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

out-of-favor alcoholic beverage, one oddball musical instrument and one itchy plaid garment that can’t go in the dryer.

There must be something more meaningful to say to this 5-year-old about her ancestry. Something noble and profound. Something that would put her in touch with the Celtic collective unconscious.

Instead, the word kippers kept coming to mind. But what’s a kipper? I blushed to realize that I wouldn’t know a kipper from a curling stone if one landed on my plate.

Briefly, I considered faking a Scottish brogue for Christina’s edification – or would it be a burr?

But Christina had lost interest. She needed to find something green. All the kids at school would be wearing green.

Genealogically speaking, I’m not that far removed from Scotland. My father’s father was born near Glasgow. But the complex – presumably – set of beliefs and customs he and his parents brought with them to the shores of Lake Michigan in 1873 are lost to me now. Tartans have given way to Levi’s. Haggis has succumbed to pizza and Chinese take-out.

When I think about where I come from, I do not think of Scotland. I think of Michigan. I hear the wind blowing in off the lake. I feel the sand squeaking under my feet. I think of huge family reunions with casseroles of baked beans and au gratin potatoes.

I think of neighborhoods with sidewalks and straight, flat streets. I think of Friday nights where a band concert or a high school basketball game is the major cultural event.

I think of the Midwestern middle class. Not a very interesting place to visit, of course, but an excellent place to be from . . .

There, I learned the corny stuff like hard work, honesty, respect for others. And while I was at it, I

DB Falconer dances the Virginia reel with daughter Barb, Camp Morrison, MI, 1949. Photo by Tinka Falconer

I also learned to square dance in the Midwest. Here, my father and I dance the Virginia reel one Michigan summer. Photo by Tinka Falconer

learned how to do the bunny hop and brody a Buick around on the ice.

Other people, I’ve noticed since coming to the Bay Area, have acquired these same old familiar virtues from cultures far-flung from mine.

I see the same kindness and trust that I learned in the Midwest in the face of the sandwich shop proprietor from Korea, who remembers that I like my BLT on rye.

I see it in the mother of my son’s playmate when she follows the custom of her native India and leaves her shoes at my doorstep.

And if I traveled to Scotland, no doubt I would see it in the eyes of those folks in the funny, itchy kilts.

Reprinted here by permission of The Oakland Tribune

*Notes on Scotch: When I was a kid growing up, we Falconer kids proudly identified ourselves as Scotch – as did every other boy and girl I knew whose family had come from Scotland. A few people, teachers mostly, used the word Scottish, but they weren’t Scotch, so what did they know?

Years later, when I went to work in the composing room at the San Francisco Chronicle and worked alongside some printers with genuine brogues (or was it burrs?) I was amazed to learn that my printer colleagues were deeply offended by the word Scotch.

Whenever I identified myself as such in their presence, you’d think I’d just used the n-word.

“People are Scots,” they’d insist. “Scotch is the whisky.”

Apparently, a few years later as I sat down to write this piece for the Trib, I’d become politically correct enough to call myself Scottish, but not so Scotch that I could bring myself to use that – to me foreign – word “Scots.”

If you’d like to read more about Lake Michigan go to “A Little Beach in Michigan.”




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