My dad left a small Canadian town for Detroit in 1951; my mother, my brothers, and I joined him a year later. With Chrysler so much in the news (he spent 24 years at the Warren Stamping Plant), I’ve musing about how he managed to build a vibrant life in a new country starting at age 38. Call it “Networking with Hughie.” These come to me as echos of how he talks.
“What’s new, strange, or startling?”
That’s what Dad says to someone he hasn’t seen for a while. You can read it just as “what’s new,” but I also see it as an invitation to open an experiential door or two:
- What’s going on in your world that you haven’t figured out yet? (As Asimov said, the key phrase in science isn’t “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”)
- What’s surprised you lately? (Surprise to me is a sign that your expectations weren’t quite up to reality. Could be good, could be bad, but certainly not predictable.)
“Ciamar a tha thu?”
When someone answers Dad’s phone call, he’ll reply this way–if they’re in his vast circle of friends and family from Cape Breton Island. The phrase is Scottish Gaelic (kimmer a hah oo, “How are you?”) . When he was growing up, Gaelic was common; his father and his father’s best friend preferred it to English.
On one level, he’s just saying hi. At the same time, he’s being playful (which is a pretty good networking technique). Dad can’t hold a conversation in Gaelic, and with one or two exceptions, neither can anyone else he knows.
He’s also re-activating the connection. Not heavily, not tediously; he’s not mourning the loss of Cànan Nan Gàidheal. What he’s doing, I think, is lightly making explicit one link he has with the other person.
“Going back to God’s country”
Hemingway said that Paris is a movable feast; for Dad, the feast has always been Cape Breton. But he’s an immigrant, someone who moves to stay, and not a sojourner, who longs to move back.
That’s true even though he’s probably made more than a hundred trips back home.
Planning the trip, he’d tell friends and coworkers about getting ready to go to God’s country. And once back, he’d cheerfully tease those who’d never been (on what their lives were lacking).
None of this was in a whiny, it’s-so-much-better-back-there way.
To me, that’s like “be here now.” Cape Breton is a grounding for him, but it isn’t the entire world. It’s part of what makes him authentic, part of what he brought to his circle of friends.
And what a circle. Dad was an auto worker, a UAW member–but his closest friends included an attorney, a CPA, the owner of a tool and die business, the manager of a jewelry store, and a top administrator in the Detroit school system.
He’s always been at ease with who he was, and curious about things in worlds outside his own. How else are you going to find the new, the strange, or the startling?
CC-licensed images: Startling Stories cover by Tohoscope;
photo of the Margaree River by luvmycrows.