91. A Long Time Past

I'm no national hyphenate. It would be an impertinence and a form of dress-up. (I wore a costume "? cassock and surplice as a altar boy "? and didn't like it much then.) But my name is borderline Scots, and I've made the pointless trip to see where my great-grandfather was born in Dalkeith and his father's grave in Lanark. Of them and their kind nothing remains except a tombstone, overgrown with evergreens when I saw it.

There's no owning that. Everyone (named and unnamed) who might connect my ordinariness to theirs died long ago into other people's memories or else dispersed to all the places where English was nominally spoken "? Tasmania, Wyoming, Canada, Boston, Brooklyn, and Mauritius. They went to China, too, as a family of Presbyterian missionaries.

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Coming to California once meant breaking frayed ties such as these, as if Los Angeles were as good as Tasmania or the Island of Mauritius for completing diasporas of all sorts. My parents arrived for World War II and to get as far from my father's mother as they could. "Back East" was two or three obligatory telephone calls a year. Visitors "? my mother's friends from New York "? arrived when I was a boy for a summer's week. Here, it seemed, was an island with no great strain of sentiment.

The poet Robert Burns gave the Scots Auld Lang Syne "? and even the tune, though not the current one, it seems "? which they will sing drunkenly tomorrow night. Burns gave the dour Scots their sentimentality (or the appearance of it), which passed from them to wildly sentimental England and from there to a sentimental world. Auld Lang Syne and the current tune are sung and played on occasions of parting from Mumbai to Poland. The tune was once the national anthem of Korea. It's still the funeral music of ruined Zimbabwe.

Burns and his contemporaries in 18th century Edinburgh composed a sort of half-language from contemporary English and the Scots of the nearby towns. It was intended to be romantic, to be a device of invented memories. But it still works, if you let it get to you.

Unadorned, shamelessly fake (as is our own L.A.), on the brink of another decade that will need kindness and cups enough to be endured, here's to long times past.

Auld Lang Syne
By Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp!
and surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
or auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot,
sin auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
sin auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.


The image on this page is from the UCLA Digital Library. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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