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Henningsen: A Stout Heart

01/03/11 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  As he faces the rigors of yet another New England winter, commentator Vic Henningsen is reminded of some wisdom from his past.

(HENNINGSEN) Not long ago, as I methodically shoveled a path across a snowy dooryard, a half-forgotten phrase popped into my mind:  "Pit a stoot hert tae a stay brae."  It's Scots for "Put a stout heart to a steep hill" and I heard it often as a child, struggling to pull a toboggan to the top of the local sledding hill.  

It came from a little bit of a woman - barely five feet, if that-named Jean Wilkie. I never knew exactly how Jean wound up in our family, except that bad as things were in America during the Great Depression, they were worse for a young Scotswoman whose parents died early and whose only brother was killed in the Great War. My grandmother originally hired her to help care for my elderly great-grandmother and great aunt, who lost their savings when the banks failed and came to live with my grandparents and their three children.  But over time Jean became an all-round clerk-of-the works-kind of my grandmother's chief executive officer-- capable of handling pretty much any challenge that presented itself, the bigger the better.  For more than a quarter-century that house was redolent of tea and tartan, bagpipes and brogue, and the regular whistling of "Scotland Forever" as Jean marched from task to task.  As a fourth generation joined the family in the 1950's, she took on the extra challenge of overseeing me, my siblings, and my many cousins.  We called her Aunt Jean.

My grandmother treated children the way a great power deals with mildly annoying lesser nations.  But Aunt Jean was a kid at heart, always sympathetic, always ready to join our games or start them herself.  She particularly loved winter and regarded a lack of enthusiasm for winter sports as a moral failing, akin to being English. When it snowed we were chivvied into snowsuits, wool hats, galoshes, and mittens and, with many Scots imprecations, hurried to the sledding hill. Wrapped in her tartan muffler, whistling away - pipe major to our band of eight or ten small children - Aunt Jean forged ahead, pausing occasionally to look back and shout:  "Coom on!  Pit a stoot hert tae a stay brae."  Gasping for breath, faces chapped, hands frozen, we gripped the tow rope harder and followed.

We didn't know it then, but Aunt Jean was doing more than getting us to the top in record time. Putting a stout heart to a steep hill means facing adversity with courage - something she'd done and something she was teaching us.

Years later I visited Aunt Jean Wilkie in Scotland, not long before she died.  When I reminded her of those long ago days when she harried us along with "Pit a stoot hert tae a stay brae", she smiled wistfully and said, "Aye, 'twas nae such a bad line was it?  It got you up there."

"Aye," I responded, "it did that."
And, all these years later, it still does.
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