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Delaney: THE MATCHMAKER OF KENMARE
The Matchmaker of Kenmare taught me much of what I know.
“If a giraffe isn’t weaned right,” she said once, “you’ll have to provide twenty gallons of fresh milk for it every day.”
Another morning she told me, “If you’re going out in the rain, always butter your boots. It makes them waterproof.”
She knew a terrific card trick, but she refused to teach it to me. “Big hands are for power,” she said, “not trickery.”
At our very first meeting she asked, “How can you tell whether an egg is fresh?”
If it doesn’t bounce when you drop it? In those days, I had a sardonic inner voice, my only defense mechanism.
She said, “Put it in a pan of cold water with salt, and if the egg rises to the surface it’s bad.”
You must have seen a lot of bad eggs, said my secret voice. I think I was afraid of her then.
She went on, “If you’re hard-boiling an egg, a pinch of salt in the water will stop it cracking.”
A pinch of salt, indeed.
“If you ever want to catch a bird,” she said, “just sprinkle salt on its tail.”
How useful. You just have to get close enough.
“Not too much salt,” she added.
Does it depend on the size of the bird?
Could she hear what I was thinking? “But don’t do it,” she said, “with an ostrich. Ostriches hate salt.”
Hoping to sound tactful, I asked, “Are there ostriches here in Kerry?”
“Ah, use your imagination,” she said. “They’re around here all right. But you have to know where to look for them.”
I nodded, in confusion more than agreement.
“Do you have a strong imagination, Ben?”
“I do,” I said, “but I’m not sure that I trust it.”
“There are only two words,” she said, “in which I put my trust. Magic and Faith.”
Some of her grip on me came from the conflict of opposites. Whereas I had always leaned toward the scholarly, she belonged to the demotic. For every line of Horace and Virgil that I savored, she had a snatch of cant, and from the moment we met I began to note many of her sayings and old saws. They still addle my brain; this morning, as I sat down to work, I remembered a fragment from a spelling game that she’d learned as a child: “Mrs. D. Mrs. I. Mrs. F-F-I. Mrs. C. Mrs. U. Mrs. L-T-Y.”
“Patience,” she murmured another day, “is the Mother of Science.”
I would swear that she often spoke in uppercase letters.
Since she rarely left her stony Atlantic headland, her knowledge of the world must have come from some popular encyclopedia of arcane and unconnected facts. Giraffes, ostriches, and eggs—they formed no more than an introduction. She knew about the lives of ants; how to gut a fish using a sharp stick and your thumb; training a cat to play dead; the healing properties of sour milk; the fact that honey is the only food that never goes off; where to find a stone that retains heat for twelve hours; how cloves grow; the number of bones in an eagle’s wing; why a cow has four stomachs; how long to boil the tar for caulking the hull of a boat. She was a walking, talking library of vernacular knowledge.
She loved music, but she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Her eye had the familiar speed of a child raised in the countryside—she could identify a bird thousands of yards away. She had a sense of color so strong that she could tell one shade of black from another. Her capacity to quote from Shakespeare suggested wide reading of him—even if some pages seemed to have been missing from her edition of the Collected Works.
Moreover, she had one specific gift that I still can’t fathom. It has never ceased to puzzle me; she used it a number of times in my company, always with astonishing results, and if it can’t be called “magic,” well, nothing can: She could find people by looking at a map. And we shall come to those moments when I saw her pull this stunt, trick, sleight of mind, or whatever it should be called.
Although she spoke three and a half languages, she had never been abroad. And however delightful in its innocence, the part of her that remained in her own homestead also made me wince, with its homespun charm, its greeting-card sentiment.
“Ben, do you know what the difference is between Friendship and Love? Friendship is the photograph, Love is the oil painting.” And she uttered it in the declarative way she had of saying things that made me hesitate to contradict her.
Her words often sounded so shallow that I dismissed them, and later found to my displeasure that her mushy sentiments had lingered and were staggering around in my mind like a drunk at a wedding. In that sense, she possessed in trumps the strange potency of cheap music, and I know that I caught some of it from her.
However, from inside all that phrase-and-fable stuff, she served up a philosophy that had an alluring power. For example, she brought into my life a belief in something that she called “Referred Passion”; I even lived by it for a time.
“Do you know what I mean by ‘Referred Passion’?” she said one day about a year into our relationship. And, as usual, not waiting for my hopeless stab at a reply, she went on. “Do you know what a referred pain is?”
Is it when I feel so stupid that I could kick myself?
“I’ll explain it,” she said. “Your shoulder is injured, but you feel it in your chest. Or you’ve hurt your spine, but your hip is carrying the ache. That’s referred pain. Well, Referred Passion is when you’re in love with one person, but you fiercely embrace another. That’s us,” she said. “That’s me and you. Friendship is a choice,” she said. “Love isn’t.”
What else can I tell you about her? She had a phenomenal passion for handkerchiefs. She kept her hair tucked behind an ear like Rita Hayworth. She taught me the words of bawdy old country rhymes, most of them too salty to repeat here. Also, she had the most peculiar recipes for things.
“If you have the hiccups,” she told me one day, “bend down, put your hands on the floor, and look back between your legs at the sun.”
My inner voice said, Is that all you’ll be able to see?—but I asked her, “And what if it’s the middle of the night?”
She said, “Then you’re in worse trouble.”
And I was—but I never picked up the warnings.
As I sat down to write this memoir, I had an opening paragraph in mind; here it is:
I wish I could tell you about the greatest friendship of my life; I wish I could tell you how it developed beyond friendship into something for which I have no definition, no terminology. But the moment I begin to tell it (and I must: I’m mortally committed to telling this tale before I die), I know that I’ll enter what I call the “Regret Cycle,” and the “What If Cycle,” and the “If Only Cycle,” and I’ll end up nowhere again.
As you can see, I abandoned those opening sentences, and the direction they proposed—yet I’m nevertheless going to write it all down for you. I’m old enough now to deal with the regrets, the what-ifs, and if-onlys, and whatever the subjective faults you may find in this remembrance, at least I can describe how I, who knew little about anything beyond my own narrow concerns, learned to become a true and deep friend to someone. It may prove important to you one day. To the both of you.
She, of course, was the one who taught me this magnificent skill—as she taught me something else extraordinary, the greatest single lesson of my life: She taught me what blind faith looks like. And blind faith is why I’m writing this account of her life, and how it affected me.
Kate Begley was her name, and she was known as the Matchmaker of Kenmare long before I met her. She and her grandmother shared the title, and Kate was as pretty as a pinup. I was twenty-nine, she was twenty-five when I met her, and she had a grin like a boy’s.
See? See what’s happening to me? Pretty as a pinup; and a grin like a boy’s—the moment I begin to describe her, all these decades later, I become sentimental about her, and I fall into language that I would never use in my ordinary life.
I who for years wrote uncluttered and austere reports of ancient countryside traditions, I who studied with joy the most powerful scholars of old Europe, I who pride myself on my unadorned simplicity of purpose—here I am, forced back into her way of thinking. And I squirm, because at these moments her greeting-card remarks will flood through me again like a maudlin old song. I’ve just heard one of those corny echoes: “You have to believe me, Ben,” she said. “Love is not a decision. But Friendship is.”
Why am I telling you all this? You’ll see why. You’ll see how she affected my life, and you’ll grasp the implications of that effect upon all of us whom this memoir concerns. You’ll see how she was the one who made the determinations; where we would go, no matter how dangerous; what we might attempt, no matter how bizarre; and yes, she decided too the balance of love and friendship between us.
I followed, and she led me into trouble so deep that my own father wouldn’t have found me. Older than she in years but younger by centuries, I’d never intended to be so commanded, but some people snag you on their spikes, and you hang there, flapping helplessly, and— I admit it—fascinated.
When I met Kate Begley, the Second World War had been under way for four years. In Ireland, we called it by a wonderful, ameliorating euphemism—“The Emergency.” We were one of the very few countries in Europe immune from the conflict, because we had taken up a position of neutrality. Controversial among our geographical neighbors, and sometimes even among ourselves, I agreed with it. Its moral simplicity suited what I like in life.
I also liked its military practicality; who were we, on our tiny island, to fight among such vast regiments? We hadn’t even replenished our slaughtered breadwinners from the previous war, in which we’d lost tens of thousands of men. Thus, we had learned to stay out of such things, or so I believed.
And yet, because I took Kate Begley at her word, because I surrendered myself to her philosophy of friendship, that is to say, Referred Passion, the war sucked me in. When it swept her from that brilliant Atlantic headland where she lived, and from her generally innocent life, it took me with her.