The Sunday Ceilidh – Rachel MacLean

In early January, a laminated sign appeared on a telephone pole outside my house:

Celtic Ceilidh every Sunday. 202 Arlington St, Watertown. All welcome.

Every morning, I’d unlock my bike and look at the friendly handwriting. My grandmother had bought me fiddle lessons for my seventh birthday, and I’d renewed her present annually until I moved from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts for college at age eighteen. In college, I played the fiddle in a band, but I had gotten away from it since graduating. Now, a year later, a fine film of dust covered my fiddle’s black leather case.

To get to the ceilidh in Watertown, I had to drive, which was part of the problem. My night vision was poor, and I was a nervous driver. Combined with my fear of playing music in front of others, it was a small miracle that I was now halfway down my driveway and still rolling; it was April, and I had finally resolved to go. As my car crawled over speed bumps out of my quiet cul-de-sac, I rested my hand on my fiddle case, weakly securing it to the passenger seat.

Dim streetlights guided my right turn, left turn, and tentative merge onto Jamaicaway, the main drag connecting Jamaica Plain to Fenway Park and Boston proper. I elected for high-beams to illuminate the infamously dangerous, serpentine parkway. Crawling north at 30 mph, I silently prayed for minimal oncoming traffic. I turned on the radio, and NPR’s drone lulled me into relaxation. Following the parkway as it hugged the Emerald Necklace, a sparkling chain of parks, ponds, and Harvard hospitals, I made it up to Storrow Drive and turned left.

Boston was peaceful that Sunday night in early spring. The Charles River had thawed, and I followed it west to Watertown, an old industrial community seven miles from Boston’s city center. When I arrived, I street-parked outside 202 Arlington, a drab two-story building next to a church, the exterior a haphazard smattering of vinyl and brick. Two weak patio lights flanked a wooden sign on the front lawn: “Canadian~American Club of Massachusetts.” A paper sign was taped to its lower edge: “Use side door.” One blue balloon floated from each patio light.

I approached the maroon side door, which didn’t appear to have a handle. I pushed it inward with my shoulder, and it gave way more easily than I expected. Off-balance, I stumbled into the vestibule, voices and music immediately filling my ears. The second door had a frosted glass panel, and through it I could make out shadowy figures, their outlines moving rhythmically.

I gripped my fiddle case tightly in my left hand and turned the doorknob, stepping into a large room with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling. On the far side of the room, a middle-aged man in a paperboy hat was serving drinks at a modest bar, a smattering of half-empty liquor bottles filling the shelves behind him. Over the bar, a banner read: “Happy 90th Birthday, Rory!”

Several long bench tables were arranged in front of the bar, their seats filled with white-haired people talking and laughing. Between the door and the tables, a dozen people step-danced to a Scottish reel played by a fiddler and pianist. Nearly everyone in the room, talkers and dancers alike, was older than 70.

Smiling nervously, I walked across the room toward the birthday sign. I caught a snatch of conversation from the table closest to the bar.

“You made me a sign? Why the heck did you bother with a sign? I can’t even see it!” quipped a cheery, wrinkled man wearing sunglasses. The table roared with laughter. The cheery man grinned, both hands rested firmly on the tabletop.

“It’s not for you, Rory!” cried a bald man with a white mustache. “It’s so the rest of us old folks stand a chance of remembering whose birthday it even is!” He laughed and jovially clapped the man in sunglasses, Rory, on the shoulder.

A kindly lady in a knit red cardigan sitting across from the bald man noticed me listening. “Hi, sweetie,” she called out to me. All the heads at the table turned in my direction, their faces smiling curiously. “Come on and sit down.” She patted the bench beside her. “I’m Mary MacKenzie. Where are you coming from?”

I sat down beside her, putting my fiddle down gently. Nervously, I addressed the table. “Uh, hi! I’m Emily. It’s nice to meet you all. I live in Jamaica Plain right now, but I’m originally from Nova Scotia.”

Rory, whose birthday it was, piped up excitedly. “Nova Scotia? Well, I’ll be!” He reached out his hand toward me, and I met it, giving it a gentle shake. “I’m Rory MacRae,” he continued, “Oldest fellow here. Born in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton.”

“And it’s his birthday today, see!” Mary pointed to the birthday banner. “This party is for him. We organized it, Roddy, Joan, and I.” Just then, the fiddler and pianist finished their set, and everyone clapped. A new duo took the stage and quickly launched into a jig, hardly giving the dancers time to catch their breath.

Rory smiled. “Yes, I’m older than ever,” he said, “But never too old for a good party. Say, Emily, you might not know it, but you’re one in a long line of Nova Scotians come down to Boston. It’s something of a tradition, you could say. Myself, Phillip, and Roddy, here, just to name a few.” He gestured to two men at the end of the table, who waved.

I didn’t know I was part of any kind of tradition, and I was interested to hear more. “No kidding! What brought you here, Rory, if you don’t mind me asking?” I said.

Mary giggled mischievously. “Oh, dear, don’t you get him going, or we’ll all be stuck here till his next birthday,” she stage-whispered. The group laughed, and Mary, chuckling, said, “I’m only kidding, o’course. Go on, then, Rory.”

Rory cleared his throat. “Well, now, when I was small, my folks moved us down to Halifax, looking for work. We got there just in time for the Explosion. I remember the day like it was this afternoon. December 6, 1917, wasn’t it? Well, I sees the smoke rising up from the harbour, and that’s about the last thing I ever got a good look at. Next thing I know, I’m in a cot in Victoria General, and I open my eyes and alls I see is blackness.” Sympathetic heads shook around the table.

Rory continued. “Well, all the doctors came up from Boston to help us out back home, what with thousands of folks in the hospital and all, and they came ‘round to me and told me right then and there I’d be blind forever. Wasn’t nothing to do about it. Flying glass got me good. But they did tell us about a school down here in Watertown, the Perkins School. A school just for the blind. Well, my parents moved me down here soon’s the doctors said they couldn’t help me. Good folks, my parents – dad was a shipbuilder, see, so work was easy to find ‘round these parts.”

I frowned. “Gosh, Rory, I’m so sorry. That sounds terrible.”

Rory waved his hand. “Wasn’t terrible at all! I figure I got twice the friends I would have otherwise, given my condition. Can’t say no to a blind fellow!”

Roddy chimed in from down the table, practically yelling over to us. “Now, Rory wouldn’t tell ya, but you wouldn’t even know the fellow was blind except for those glasses. Worked as a ship’s mechanic for years, did it all by feel. Competes in the local old folks’ Olympics every year, wins the hundred meter by a mile! And he’s the best fiddler of all of us, that’s for darn’d sure.”

Mary rested her hand on my arm. “Now, dear, is that a fiddle you brought, too?” she asked, pointing down at my feet where my fiddle lay. “We’d love to hear you play. We never have enough fiddlers around here.”

The others peered over interestedly. I blushed. “Yes, it is, but I haven’t played in quite a while. I’m really out of practice.” I looked at my hands, hoping the subject would move on.

“Well, Emily, come on up and play with me,” Rory insisted. “It’s my birthday, and I need someone to hide my mistakes.”

After much coaxing, I went to the stage and tuned up. My hands shook as I turned the pegs. After a brief discussion on tune choices, Rory and I launched into St. Anne’s Reel. I slowly warmed up, muscle memory carrying me through rough patches. Rory’s exuberant style was infectious, and I soon gained confidence, tapping my foot to the rhythm. We played tune after tune, our shared Cape Breton heritage filling the Boston dance hall.

The hours passed merrily, Rory and I taking the stage several times throughout the night. When we weren’t playing, we talked about Halifax’s annual Christmas tree gift to Boston, the migration of countless Cape Breton workers down to Boston after the coal mines closed, and how I ended up in New England. Our obligatory conversation about shared acquaintances in Cape Breton revealed that we were, in fact, second cousins twice-removed, related by my grandmother’s MacRae blood. When Rory found out my family was from Ingonish, Cape Breton, he told me of a ferry ride he took as a child from Sydney to Ingonish. His descriptions of the pilot whales, rolling highlands, and sparkling sea were vivid and detailed. I wondered if he remembered so well because he didn’t have new images to crowd out the old ones.

At 10 o’clock, arms sore from fiddling, I began to yawn. Marveling at the energy of the older crowd, none of whom looked anywhere near as tired as I felt, I embraced Mary and thanked her for her hospitality. She urged me to take a fudge brownie for the road. Fiddle in one hand, brownie in the other, I walked to the other side of the table and nudged Rory’s shoulder.

“Thanks for encouraging me to play, Rory. It had been a while, and this was just what I needed,” I said. Suddenly, my face flushed, and I felt tears welling in my eyes. Wiping them hastily on my sleeve, I coughed and repeated my thanks.

Rory grinned back and clasped my elbow. “You didn’t miss a beat, Emily. Come on back anytime. And tell your grandmother I say hello.”

Waving to the dancers on my way out, I exited the side door and stepped into the night. It was quiet in Watertown, and I breathed deeply. The air was cleaner than in the city. I noticed the blue balloons, still limply buoyant.

I stood next to the door and listened for one more snippet of song. The last chord of a jig floated out to me, and I heard faint applause. I walked to my parked car and climbed in, carefully placing my fiddle on the passenger seat. I drove back to Jamaica Plain without fear of the darkness.

This essay is the Winner of our first Student Essay Contest. Congratulations Rachel!

Bio: Rachel is a Nova Scotia transplant living in upstate New York. Currently, she is finishing up her second year of medical school in the Bassett track at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. When time allows, she loves playing the fiddle with friends and spending time outdoors. She has always felt an urge to write creatively, and hopes to continue working on her style as the years go on.

“This piece is a fictional story inspired by my real experiences at the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts. The main character, Rory, is based on my great-uncle, who is, as the story says, a blind fiddler who likes to complete in athletic competitions for the elderly. In this story, I hoped to capture the spirit of the Club, as well as the vivacity of Rory, who has made the most and more of his years of blindness, and has lived an undeniably full life.”