North Berwick, Scotland – September 2016
How high the walls of this castle are. How red the stone. Red: the color of the family that once dwelled within. The color of blood. My blood, diluted over the centuries by that of other tribes. Descendants dispersed in the winds of time. It’s just a name now: Douglas. A family ripped apart by rivalry. They became Red Douglases and Black Douglases. I have visited that other castle, in the Borders region. I wasn’t aware of the rift, then. Or to which line I belonged. It all comes down to color. Swarthy or ginger. Dark or light. Any heritage I claimed at Threave is erased and replaced by this intimidating structure. Tantallon.
The House that William Built, an information board proclaims. My mother and I exchange a look and snicker. William is the name of one of my brothers. She takes a photo, so she can show him when she returns home. Scotland is her “bucket list” place, she says. She has always wanted to visit the country that gave her children their name. Despite the hardship she personally suffered because of this same name. She wanders off with my stepfather, exploring rooms and staircases and passages. I pause to gaze at Bass Rock. Tiny white specks blanket the massive boulder. Gannets. Every few seconds, a group takes flight. They rise in one surge, soar for a few seconds, and then come to rest again.
Someone recently asked me which places I’d most like to return to. I realized that I’d never really thought about this. There are so many new places to see. Scotland, I replied. I’d love to go back to Scotland. There is something comforting about this wild, bleak land. I’m delighted to be here again.
Every Christmas, we got together with my father’s family. We were the only ones who didn’t live in Bay City, so it was often the only time of the year when we saw them. We’d walk into one of the uncle’s homes. Most of the others would already be there. A silence fell. Upper lips curled. Eyes narrowed. Looks were exchanged. Backs were turned. They’d warm up, eventually. A grudging cordiality. I was always relieved when it was time to go home.
My parents divorced. I didn’t see the Douglases for years. When my father died, we became reacquainted, but the underlying contempt from some of them had only deepened. They didn’t like us because we were snobs, some of the friendlier ones informed us. My mother was from rich Midland and not blue-collar Bay City. She will always be the witch who divorced my father. Those few who honestly liked us died young, like my father. There was squabbling over pennies after my grandmother died. Greed and betrayal runs deep in the veins. My siblings and I realized the futility of this allegiance. We drew up the drawbridge and closed the gate, insulating ourselves from the petty intrigue.
How quickly the clouds gather here. I pull my hood tight around my head. We linger at opposite ends of the barbican. In the grim light, the redness of the walls fades to rust. The color of old wounds. My mother and stepfather stare out over the deep blue water and embrace.