Imagine you’re hemmed in by a cemetery on your right and the Pontchartrain Expressway on your left. Traffic is stopped dead and backed up at Metairie Road because some bozo in an SUV up ahead was trying to text while driving and ran into the back of a cab. You are pounding on the steering wheel.
Then you hear it: “Amazing Grace.” The iconic hymn is floated out by the haunting, lilting wail of a bagpipe.
The oddly soothing sound lifts out of cemetery city from somewhere amid the tombs and settling over the line of cars at Metairie Road and Pontchartrain Boulevard.
Then you see him: Michael Kimble, tall and handsome, the pride of the old sod, the Gaelic male personified in his Bonnie Prince Charlie duds, splendid from his full tartan kilt replete with matching flashes to his mirror-shined Ghillie brogue shoes. Kimble is walking among the thousands of final resting places as he does most Sundays: hugging his bagpipe, gently coaxing melodies that have soothed many a breast in the Emerald Isle over the centuries.
Kimble says he plays for his departed mom and dad who’ve been laid to rest in Cemetery City, and who’ve a brand new crypt in the works just a few feet off the expressway. But points out that everybody can listen in.
He is an Uptown native who now lives in an 1803 antebellum mansion on Bayou St. John. And although he spends enough time in the air flying round-trip to New York for his investment business to qualify as “King of the Frequent Fliers,” he sounds like a Chamber of Commerce commercial for his native city.
“I am so passionate about New Orleans it hurts,” Kimble says. “My wife [Norma] and I were in New York and she was pregnant. By all means I wanted my daughter to be born in New Orleans. I wanted to see ‘Place of birth: New Orleans’ on that birth certificate. Being eight months pregnant, she wasn’t allowed to fly, so we timed everything out and took a train back to New Orleans. Don’t you know there were some problems with the train around Mobile,” he continues, “so we got out and jumped a Greyhound Bus to New Orleans. Friends in New York couldn’t understand going through all of that. They thought I was crazy. I guess you’ve got to know what New Orleans means. Anyway, we made it. My daughter, Charlotte, was born at Baptist Hospital. Same place I was born.”
When it came time for baptism, Michael and Norma Kimble had the rite performed in Guatemala, Norma’s native country. When the couple adopted two children in Guatemala, “… they were baptized here,” Kimble says, “right down the street at (Our Lady of) Holy Rosary Church.”
“By doing it that way, we have connection with Norma’s family and with my family here in New Orleans. Her family is just as important as mine. That’s why we go to Guatemala twice a year. Family is No. 1! Where you live is next.”
The idea of “family,” “roots” and “ancestors” was driven into Kimble early one day when he was growing up Uptown in a household with a mother who was living and preaching daily a Celtic belief system awash in shamrocks.
“I remember we had to have green grits on St. Patrick’s Day,” Kimble says. “She made a big deal over the (St. Patrick’s Day) Parade. She was born in the Irish Channel, and like a lot of Irish-Americans she kept drilling into me: ‘You are Irish! Irish! Irish! My dad came from further Uptown and he was a grumpy old German. Irish-German, German-Irish – all the time. I was supposed to be born on St. Patrick’s Day and she was going to name me ‘Michael Patrick.’ That did it! My father wouldn’t stand for it. I became ‘Michael John.’”
In the end, Kimble’s mother had the last laugh: She used ‘Patrick’ as her son’s confirmation name.
Despite all the Gaelic-Teutonic rumblings in the household and son Michael’s attending Columbia College and eventually working in New York, family and place remained the driving force in the investment broker’s heart.
“I began taking bagpipe lessons in New York at night,” Kimble says. “I really enjoyed it. Then I joined a band. The first time I played was for my mother’s younger sister. She cried. My playing really touched her. Then I was playing every chance I got. When we had a ceremony down at the church, I’d lead a procession there with my bagpipe.”
All of which made Mom Kimble as happy as a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow.
“That was a different story,” Kimble says. “My father had a rough exterior. And he went crazy when he saw me in kilts for the first time: ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’ he said. ‘How much did you spend for that skirt?’ He tracked down a bagpipe player in my niece’s graduation ceremony and asked him how much that kilt he was wearing costs.
Then he came to me and said, ‘You spent what for that skirt?’”
Kimble’s mother died in 2003 and his father followed a few years later. But any man who had 12 siblings realized in the end you can’t take family grudges or even dislikes to the grave. He accepted a son in what he called a ‘skirt,’ playing a musical instrument that had come to grow on him.
“My father asked me to play ‘Amazing Grace’ for him at his funeral,” Kimble says. “… which I did. And it was very emotional. It just seemed like a natural thing to continue to play for them. I remember having the thought that when you die you don’t disappear. You’re still there. The sound of the bagpipes is like incense or a candle. It’s different. It carries and it goes up to heaven.”
Kimble explains that his dad didn’t want to be buried outside. He wanted to spend eternity ‘indoors.’ A few feet off the corner of Metairie Road and Pontchartrain Boulevard, a new crypt is taking shape, rising from the ground. Soon it will become the Kimble Family burial place. His parents will be relocated there.
And son Michael Kimble and his bagpipes will be right there to welcome them to their new home.
So the next time you’re in the neighborhood and you’re stuck in traffic and you hear Michael John Kimble playing some memorable Irish tune, feel free to whistle along.
The audience won’t mind a bit.