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Spring-Fling Cleaning

THE record jacket was a peculiar shade of pink, and for my family, it heralded the return of spring just as accurately as the crocuses and the robins. I always forgot about it from year to year, and all unsuspecting one day I would be trudging home from the nearby elementary school, when from the end of the block I'd hear that unmistakable music. With a quick, furtive glance to see if anybody had noticed, I'd race home, beet-red with mortification and hoping desperately that the neighbors would think I was some poor orphan who had lost her way, and not in any way related to the obviously demented woman who lived at our address. But there was no denying it: There'd be our house with the windows flung wide, and inside, clearly visible, my mother, racing around with feather duster and broom, her vigorous spring cleaning accompanied by the piercing strains of the Royal Cape Breton Pipers Band.

Bagpipe music! NOBODY in our staid suburban town listened to bagpipe music except my mother. And she didn't just listen to it, she threw herself into it body and soul: She sang along, she marched, and occasionally even broke into an impromptu Highland fling. All of this in full view of the neighbors! What on earth would people think?

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The neighbors, in retrospect, were probably delighted. They had great affection for my mother, a woman whose exuberance could bring even the dullest gathering to life, and her penchant for pipers would doubtless only have added to her charm.

Meanwhile, I would slink into the house and glare at her as she whirled from room to room, heedless of my utter humiliation. She'd toss me a smile as she danced by, knowing full well that the music would seduce me soon enough. I'd try my best to resist, but before long I'd catch my toes tapping, and finally I'd have to relent. It's not hard to understand why, historically, pipers have led the troops into battle. Bagpipe music can rally even the most reluctant of recruits.

So in spite of myself, I'd let the music catch me up and carry me out into the living room where my sister Lisa had already surrendered, and the two of us would offer ourselves up as willing volunteers. Armed with dust rags and spray bottles, we'd follow Mother from room to room, the three of us jiggling to a tune like ``My Love She's But a Lassie Yet,'' while Stefanie, the youngest one, beat her plump fists on the edge of the playpen and squealed in delight.

At times during the year, I'd fish the album out from the box at the back of the coat closet. It was hard to miss; the cover was a violent shade of dog-tongue pink that practically glowed in the dark. On the front was a photograph: crisp ranks of solemn men in full Highland regalia, marching in some sylvan setting, brows wrinkled and cheeks swollen with the effort of piping. I'd flip it over and read aloud the names of the tunes: ``The Massacre of Glencoe,'' ``Molly on the Shore,'' ``O'er the Bows to Ballindal Loch,'' and ``The Braes of Mar.'' The words entranced me, rolling off my tongue like some secret Celtic intonation. Then back it would go into its jacket and disappear for another year, until my mother would dig it out, and I'd hear it walking home from school and know that spring had officially arrived.

My mother was born and raised in Nova Scotia, a MacDougall and proud of it. She became an American citizen, and couldn't have been more pleased about that - but in her heart she always remained a fervently loyal Scot. If shortbread appeared on a menu, she'd order it. When our cats had kittens, they were given names like ``MacTavish'' and ``Farthing'' and ``Fiona.'' And as far as names go, I got off easy in that department; I should be grateful I wasn't dubbed Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But the high point of my mother's love affair with things Scottish occurred when I was 12 and we were living in England. We had driven to Scotland for a holiday, and were aboard a ferry, cruising the harbor of Oban. It was a glorious day, all blue and gold, and the islands rose in the bay like lush green dumplings. As we passed a tiny, treeless isle, the captain pointed out a pile of barren stone ruins. That, he informed us, was the remains of the clan seat of the MacDougalls.

My mother rushed to the railing and for a moment I thought we'd have to hold her back, lest she leap into the sea and swim for shore. Her eyes shone with excitement and she announced to everyone within earshot and then some that she, in fact, was a MacDougall. Certainly not an impressive fact to a boatland of folks from a country bursting with MacEverybodys, but they all nodded and smiled, more at my mother's delight than at her claim to fame.

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Somewhere in one of our numerous domestic moves, the bagpipe record was lost, or broken. By the time I was in high school, those spring cleanings were a faded memory. But not entirely forgotten. Even now, when I hear a piper, I have an urge to scrub something, or to reach for the vacuum cleaner at the very least.

And now here I am, a mother myself, and it's spring, and I'm standing at a display of ethnic recordings in an urban record store. I pluck one from the shelf and flip it over. The titles of all those familiar tunes bring to mind my childhood, and a particularly vibrant shade of pink. I hesitate, but not for long. It's spring, after all - the season for impulsive acts. With thoughts full of other springs, and my dear, outrageous mother, I buy the record and head for home.

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