Friday, June 27, 2008

Of Scottish Myths and Legends

Once upon a time there was a man named McDuffie who resided in a very nice section of my hometown. A quiet little man, he boasted a perpetually happy grin and a knack for business. Not only did he own a very prosperous furniture store, he also raised Black Angus cattle. Dear Mr. McDuffie would, for me, single handedly wipe out the stereotype of Scotsmen as um...frugal.

My grandfather worked at that furniture store. When Mr. McDuffie was drafted for WWII, he left Granddaddy in charge. Grandaddy always joked, with a somewhat relieved expression, that he'd been too young for WWI and too old for WWII. When Mr. McDuffie returned, he was greatly pleased with Granddaddy's progress. This man was the kind of employer who went the extra mile to reward his workers, something fairly unheard of today. But he didn't just reward employees, he treated their families as well.

One of the treats was a rent free stay at his country home, "The Nest". Well off the beaten path and surrounded by trees, the ranch style house also had a well stocked private pond. While Grandma, who couldn't swim, paddled about in a boat and out fished everyone, I'd have fun playing in the huge great room. It had floor to ceiling windows which looked out at the pond and a huge stone fireplace. But the thing I remember most fondly was a framed print which had originally been an advertisement for the furniture store. The caption was, "Feather your nest with a little down." I never knew which I was most proud of; the fact I got the pun without it being explained or that my Granddaddy had written it.

But perhaps my favorite Mr. McDuffie memory was the company's annual Christmas party. Employees were encourage not only to bring their spouse, but their children as well. In Grandaddy's case, he brought my younger sister and me. I was about six the first time and we attended for several years, until Grandaddy's retirement. I don't know who was more disappointed about that retirement; Mr. McDuffie or me. Inside the strong business man and cattle farmer lived someone who remembered the joy of childhood. Best of all, he wanted to share that joy. Every woman present, including small girls, had a corsage pinned on them upon entering the Christmas party. There was always entertainment before dinner...a kid friendly dinner I might add, featuring foods we loved and I suspect McDuffie might've craved himself. One year he brought in a magician who was absolutely horrible but the Boss laughed so hard, we giggled with him. His employees were mostly male and Mr. McDuffie gifted them with lapel pins for years of service. I'll never forget being proud every year Granddaddy received a new gold lapel pin which featured a small ruby. After a few years, that ruby became a diamond. I'm not talking specks of jewels, I'm talking impressive stones, so much so that when Granddaddy died, Grandma had the stones turned into a broach. The signal that the evening was ending was when Mr. McDuffie would call the children up, one at a time, to hand over a gift that "Santa" had left for us, his eyes twinkling merrily. No child ever received the same gift.

Mr. McDuffie was generous with his community as well. From his big white house perched on a hill in the "nice" part of town, he had an excellent view of "the jewel of the city": Swan Lake Iris Gardens. Originally a swamp, the one day famous gardens were the result of an agitated gardener tossing away some Japanese Iris that wouldn't grow. But the bulbs thrived in the wet, fertile soil. With time, patience and loving care, the swamp became a beautiful public garden which still brags of being the only place in the world where you can find all seven types of Swans. [They look pretty, but let me tell you the black ones with the red beaks will pinch the crap out of you! But that's another story].

The problem with the Garden was the busy street which dissected it. One side was more "family friendly" with picnic areas, a concession stand, walking trail and tennis court. The other side was more conducive to gardeners, photographers and outdoor weddings. Getting from one side to the other, however, meant taking your life in your hands. Mr. McDuffie, from his spot on the hill, figured out a solution. And paid for it. A covered wooden bridge was constructed over the street, it's design meant to blend in with nature's beauty rather than be a metal monster. Wanting everyone to enjoy the garden, Mr. McDuffie even had elevators installed on each side for those who couldn't climb the stairs which led to the safer shortcut.

When Mr. McDuffie died several years ago, I sent a note to his son, telling him how his father had made my childhood special. It also contained a confession. But confession is good for the soul because the son wrote me back and resolved me of any sin....with a self professed giggle.

As a kid I knew that Mr. McDuffie raised black Angus cattle. When I was about 8, we ran into Mr. McDuffie's son, Angus. Dad introduced the man, whose hand I shook while I gazed at him with a puzzled expression. As the son walked away, I remember looking up at Dad and saying, "I always thought Mr. McDuffie was a nice man."

"He is," my Dad had replied in that patient paternal way of knowing more was coming.

"Well if he's so nice," I huffed in little girl outrage, "then why did he name his kid after his cows?"

And thus was my first lesson in Scottish names.


Rachel Fox said...

Lovely story.
I have to admit I was surprised when we moved to Scotland and people really were called Angus and Donald and Hamish...I thought they were old-fashioned names but they're all very much alive and kicking.

shug said...

It's a little known fact that my first name's Hamish. I'm alive and kicking. Just.