Breakfast With Mrs. Taylor
Castlefin, County Donnegal, Ireland
"Daaaad!" April said. Born and raised in the American South, my daughter managed to stretch the three-letter word into a three-syllable word. In her early 20s, the tinge of teenage impatience still upon her, she inflected the word with just the right degree of contempt for her father's idiosyncrasies. "It's not like we won't be able to find a place somewhere in Donnegal," she said.
Unflagging optimism has never been my strong suit. Night was coming, and although we would stay again this night at Mountain View farmhouse in Drumcliffe, I had, as yet, failed to make lodging arrangements for tomorrow night. The realization struck as I nosed the car out of the parking lot and onto the little dirt road leading away from the entrance to the Falls of Glenn Carr.
We were exploring Yeats Country. Me driving, desperately trying to remain aware of the need to keep to the left. April in the passenger's seat, cringing at vehicles approaching from ahead on the right. Strangers in a strange land. I'd been driving for more than 30 years. Still, this unnatural approach to such a common task pinged at my anxieties despite the practice I'd gotten driving cross-country from Dublin days ago.
Now, the likelihood of a night without a roof over my head was barely 24 hours away, suddenly becoming all too real. American businessman sensibilities told me that reservations are made days – weeks – in advance. That worry, and the consequences of inadvertently veering in the wrong direction at just the wrong time, combined to set my nerves fidgeting like bacon in a pan.
April was right, of course. A simple phone call by Mrs. Murphy the next morning, and we were set. "I think you'll be happy with your rooms at Gortfad," she said. "It's on your route, near Castlefin. The farmhouse has been in the same family for seven generations. Mrs. Taylor there is a lovely lady. Just don't be surprised when you speak to her. Her voice is quite hoarse."
I thanked Mrs. Murphy for her hospitality, and we drove north, edging around the brooding Benbulben one last time, then spending the day exploring along the N15. We were making a lazy pattern across the map of Ireland, intending toward the Giant's Causeway and Bushmills distillery. Later, with evening settling in and unsure of the distance to Castlefin, I pulled into a convenience store and placed a pay phone call to Gortfad Farm. Mrs. Murphy picked up the phone. Late evening – shadows growing rapidly, but we were not far. Stay on the N15, past Ballybofey and Stranorlor, past Killygordon. The road veers sharply left toward Castlefin.
I left the convenience store and settled in behind the wheel thinking more about the conversation than the directions. It was incongruous, mismatched, but in a strangely pleasant way. Such a warm, inviting personality behind that gravelly voice. The two things did not fit, and yet, somehow they did.
Gortfad was everything promised, and more – a 300-year-old farmhouse – home of the same family for seven generations. "Quiet and secluded in its own grounds," said the Irish Farmhouse Bed & Breakfast guide, confirming Mrs. Murphy's description. Arriving well after dark, April and I were unable to immediately appreciate the old house from outside, its combined Victorian and Edwardian architecture. We did appreciate Mrs. Taylor's gentle welcome, though.
April's room was on the ground floor. Climbing the stairs to the great bedroom above, a thought bubbled up. Unconsciously, I'd been reviewing elementary school history classes and comparing dates. This house was older than my country. Common sense told me that many such places existed – thousands upon thousands of them. And many far older than this. My argument to common sense, however, maintained that such ancient places had never hosted me. This one did.
Gortfad Farm was my introduction to history far more meaningful than any teacher's class. A night's sleep, showered and dressed, the morning found me downstairs, hesitating at the doorway. The dining room was formal, old-fashioned and empty, except for me. The table set for breakfast, I still do not recall making a conscious decision to take the seat at the far side of the room, my back to the wall, at the head of the table. That's where I had the first sense of it. A sense of fit, of things correct, a belonging. I disregarded the notion. That's a trespass. Stranger in a strange land, remember. I said to myself, my own Southern upbringing coming to the fore. You slept well for a change. Good. Don't get too comfortable. Mind your manners.
Mrs. Taylor had heard me come down to breakfast. Now here she came with fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee. The girls who usually served, she explained, were off sitting for their high school exams. And what would I like for breakfast? Again, that strange feeling. She is not taking an order for breakfast. She truly wants to know what I want. Nothing strange in that, I told myself as Mrs. Taylor disappeared through the kitchen door. She is running a bed and breakfast here. What else would she do? It's just that she reminds you of your own grandmother. Nothing more than that.
Alone again I looked about the dining room while that sense of proper place began to seep into me, permeating like coffee through a filter. To my left, a side table in the corner held the pot with fresh coffee and a couple of newspapers. I took The Irish Times and began to read, but the articles failed to register, their content driven out by a growing sense of ease, even contentment. How can that be? I demanded of myself. I've never been in this house, in this room, at this table. Until four or five days ago, I've never been in this country.
Soon enough, Mrs. Taylor was back with breakfast. Eggs, sausage, toast, jam. More coffee? Yes, please. I started in on the breakfast while my thoughts kept wandering into history. Is this what it was really like? Not a Hollywood movie representation, but a real glimpse back 100 years, 200 years and more. An estate. The country gentleman who owns it. His breakfast served, and he eats thinking about the day and the work ahead. Lands. Fields. Horses. Crops. What needs attention? A harness needs mending. See to that. In town, what news? And business appointments.
Mrs. Taylor clearing the breakfast dishes brought me back from the reverie. Looking up, a sudden pang of guilt. What a bother I must be, sitting here like some landed gentry being waited on by this kindly, grandmotherly lady. How presumptuous I am. I should be helping, not sitting here like I deserved such service. Yet, focused again on the present, I managed to take in the movements of the old lady at her tasks. She was in and out of the room without urgency, but with a telling economy of motion, as if to say, "I have done this thousands of times, and I am perfectly willing to do it thousands more." Her movements were not those of a person at work. No obligation inhabited them. Rather, Mrs. Murphy's acts were as common and necessary and as unconscious as one breath following another.
She cleared the dirty dishes and offered to refill my coffee. We shifted into an easy conversation. Then another guilty pang. My breakfast was done, but April was nowhere to be seen. Probably still sleeping. Mrs. Taylor would have to do this all over again. I put voice to that concern, but Mrs. Taylor was having none of it. "Let her sleep on," she said. "I know girls, and girls need their rest." In another person the words could have sounded false, a mere world-weary catering to the whims of a customer. In Mrs. Taylor's voice, however, there was only a sincere request, as if the prospect of doing another breakfast was her own indulgence, an opportunity to pamper someone. The whole sense of it was of family come home.
With the breakfast service and table clearing out of the way, I found that I could relax. I wanted to know more about this house, this lady, these lands. I wanted that easy conversation back, so I could find out these things. Eventually, Mrs. Taylor sat next to a large buffet, and I moved to the chair at the foot of the table, turning the chair at right angles to the dining table so I could face her as we talked. Had she been beautiful as a girl? Perhaps. Somehow it was clear that one didn't think of such things. The marks of age were there, in her hair, her face, her hands. She wore them only as they were, with no comparison to how they might have been in youth. Looking at a magnificent old oak, one is not occupied with the sapling.
I drank more coffee, and she told me about coming to that farm as the bride of the owner when she was only 17 or 18. She'd been there ever since. She had raised two daughters there. Now her girls lived in Dublin, but she could see them by riding the train into the city, the fare provided free for all of her age. Our conversation lasted thirty minutes, maybe forty-five. No longer. It served to confirm that earlier feeling, the sense of place, of being in the right place, of belonging.
I went out for a walk, to see the fields and hedges and countryside, and to look at the graceful old house in full daylight. Returning along the lane, I faced the front of the house and could look up at the second-story window of the bedroom I occupied. I recalled the window from the inside, the light spilling in on a desk and chair. What a place for a writer to work. Like the guidebook said, "quiet and secluded in its own grounds."
I indulged a fantasy of living at Gortfad while writing a book. I had no idea of the nature of the book. It wasn't important, a mere excuse for combining the old fantasy of writing with this new fantasy of an extended stay in the Donnegal countryside. Working at that desk each morning as the sun invaded my window on the past, the massive old room with its high ceiling behind me gradually yielding its shadows. Lunch, then long walks in the afternoon. Making acquaintances with those who've spent their lives here.
I've made three international trips so far in my lifetime. And with each journey I've taken in the scenery, the art, the architecture, as all tourists do. Yet, those experiences seldom seem the best part of travel. Rather, it has been the times when I've met and actually talked with true natives of the country being visited that remain the most treasured souvenirs. Even the briefest of conversations seem to sustain in memory. Drinking chilled vodka shots with celebrating Russian businessmen in a St. Petersburg restaurant. Nearly stumbling over a large, but friendly dog in a crowded Paris park, then greeting the pooch in broken French to the delight of his mistress at the other end of the leash. Having the presence of mind to offer the proper French greeting to the kindly old lady peering out her front door only to encounter the American ambling down the tiny village street. A simple "Bonjour, Madame," and her pensive face bloomed into a relaxed smile.
The journey through Ireland's northern counties with April was the first of my international excursions, no doubt inspired by a decided Scots-Irish heritage. Old photos from the family albums and a quick look in the mirror are sufficient to confirm my genetic links. I'll leave the dusty genealogy research to someone else. With each trip I've had to battle my personal anxiety monster back into its cage upon finding myself immersed in an unknown culture so far beyond the safe boundaries of home. Those anxieties were most pronounced during the trip to Ireland, it being my first international excursion. Maybe that's why Mrs. Taylor's breakfast in the dining room at Gortfad made such an impression.
Mrs. Taylor is a kind lady who has outlived her husband, whose children are grown and living far away. It could be that she simply misses the pleasures of performing routine chores for family, chores that we Americans find so banal. As true as it is, does that explanation fully account for my sense of serenity while under her roof?
Van Morrison offers an explanation I like even better. His song about the "Celtic Ray" seems to explain it all. Ireland, Scotland, Britain and Wales I can hear their ancient voices calling Children, children, children As the song suggests, maybe I'd just "been away from the Ray too long." So, for lack of a better term, let's put my experience at Gortfad down to genetic memory. There is comfort in believing that the place, the people sparked an echo of ancestors, direct or otherwise, long dead yet living still as a Celtic son who briefly stumbled home. That's what provided the serenity, the sense of fit like one piece of a puzzle, separate but connected, both a picture on its own and a part of a whole. Except that this picture puzzle moves and breathes, lives and dies and lives.