by Rebecca Anthony
On April 28, 2018 one of our own, Mary Paige Forrester, took an unexpected and premature departure from this earth. Still, parting ways with her mortal coil did not keep her from returning to Grandfather Mountain in Linville, North Carolina for this year’s Highland Games.
I felt her there, and with the clear sight of my mind’s eye, I saw her.
It is difficult to say whether the Games embodied Paige Forrester or Paige Forrester embodied the Games, but between them existed a unique kinship, an affinity of both blood and heart. Like Paige herself, the Games are the ultimate union of romance and reality, and she was drawn to them like a wandering Scot is drawn to his whiskey flask on a chilly evening. Thus, it is unthinkable she would miss one final romp in her favorite historical playground, so rich in its traditions and so tempting in its unique charm.
On Friday, in the crisp morning air she greets me with a smile of approval at my costume, which she took great pains to plan out for me the day before. As she gives it a few tweaks, I admire her own dress, a crimson tunic adorned to perfection with custom-made tam and sash wrought in the Forrester tartan. With her fair skin and red hair, she is the very picture of a winsome highland lass.
She certainly sounds like one when she speaks, showing off a brogue authentic enough to fool the canniest of Caledonians. As a former madrigal singer and Shakespearean actress, she is in her true element here. I can don the costume, I think, but she becomes the character.
Her intelligent eyes glitter, blue as a highland loch in autumn, as we turn to watch the opening ceremonies. At her side is her husband Thomas, bearded, kilted and strikingly authentic in his grey linen vest and Balmoral bonnet. He appears to have just stepped off the pages of a popular Scottish saga. They are a well-suited pair, together absorbed in the pageantry and tradition unfolding on the field.
The opening ceremonies, to me, are a symbolic gate through which all attendees to the Games should be required to pass. Beyond that gate history will, if only for a few days, venture forth from the realm of detached knowledge and into that of human tangibility. And this year, Paige is sure to have her fill.
Beneath her costumed finery, however, lurks a distinguished and professional modern woman who pops out at random moments with a wry quip or colorful personal anecdote. She recounts a favorite to me, of how she became chums with the diminutive Duke of Hamilton at the Stone Mountain Games of 2016.
Meeting by chance on a random tobacco break, the duke sampled one of Paige’s “all natural” cigarettes and took an immediate shine to them. And to Paige.
Ever generous, she brought him a couple of promised packs the next day—same time, same place, same brand—and they swapped observations about the Games and sundry other topics. Later, when Paige and Thomas came calling at the Clan Hamilton tent, His esteemed Grace jumped from his chair in a flash, beaming in delight at his newly-acquired kindred spirit. From that day forward, Thomas would joke often with his wife about “your royal boyfriend.”
The weather Saturday is fine. After a lunch of “crock-pot haggis” that I just can’t finish, Paige and I meander into the hallowed grounds of the costume vendors to further indulge our insatiable love of historical dress. There she proves more knowledgeable about bodices and bows than the proprietors, and I cannot help but smile. On a sadder note, she proves no help at dissuading me from once again spending sinful sums of money on new gowns and accoutrements. But then, Paige is canny enough to know I won’t listen anyway.
On our way out we enjoy a generous dram of Scotch from Thomas’ handy flask as well as the inevitable series of laughs Scotch drams tend to bring on. Paige’s face is lovely, flushed with good health and good cheer.
Serenaded by a practicing bagpiper in a shady clump of trees nearby, we make our way to the tent of Clan Forrester for a family visit. There we are met with the usual shower of cordial greetings and proceed to “catch up” while watching husky sunburned men on the athletic field toss around telephone poles and hammers as casually as the rest of us toss horseshoes at a backyard picnic.
Inevitably everyone gets round to the subject of genealogy, and bloodlines—both certain and shady, notable and obscure—are rehashed for the hundredth time. New revelations in one’s ancestry are shared with relish.
At some point I realize, though not for the first time, that Paige’s love for the Games goes far deeper than mere externals. Above all she cherishes the fragile familial links between past and present that they preserve. Like her father Jim, a man of pure Scottish stock, Paige thrives on the satisfying sense of personal belonging and historical continuity to be found with her extended Forrester kin. The Clan is a permanent home and she an ongoing thread woven into that invisible flesh-and-blood tartan that binds together past, present and future generations of Forresters. Even death cannot unravel it.
But Paige’s time runs short. Before I know it, she appears beside me at the Sunday morning church service. The sun radiates benevolence from an airy blue sky overhead. God’s common grace touches everything the eye can see and all it cannot. It warms and comforts the soul.
Yet for any true lover of the Games, this is also a bittersweet hour, as it marks the final day of the event and an imminent return to bland and broken everyday life.
Except for Paige, I think. The life to which she departs this year holds nothing bland or broken.
The benediction is given and the Star-Spangled Banner sung. I can hear Paige nail the high note on “free” with precision and the characteristic Broadway gusto that I will miss so much.
The clan tartans are now properly “kirked” into position and the pipes fall silent for the Flowers of the Forrest remembrance. I sense the tension among Paige’s loved ones who stand near me, their tight throats andrestrained tears, the Paige-shaped holes in their hearts. I feel, rather than see, Paige smile at them. And at me.
I don’t want to say goodbye, but I must. We all must.
The words of Scotland’s favorite bard return to me. (Burns, I find, has something appropriate for any occasion.)
When death's dark stream I ferry o'er,
A time that surely shall come;
In Heaven itself, I'll ask no more,
Than just a Highland welcome.
From the podium her name is read out…
Mary Paige Forrester. Flower of the Forest.
And a flower of the Forresters for all time.