AS IN MOST HAPPY childhoods, my life consisted of long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of drama that did not have far-reaching consequences. The summer of my first memories I was five years old and still an only child. My mother was with me at Ballydavid-we were visiting my grandmother and great-aunt-and she must have been pregnant, carrying my brother Edward. Of her pregnancy, I remember nothing.
Instead, I remember moments of that summer-small scenes full of meaning that I couldn't then, with my limited vocabulary, convey to the grown-ups. I am not confident I can do so now. The largest of these fragments of memory begins on the avenue at Ballydavid. It says something about the benevolence of the Irish countryside in those days, and even more about the casual attitude toward children in my not overindulgent family, that no one noticed I had wandered away from the house-along the avenue almost to the wrought-iron and stone-pillared gates, on the other side of which lay the road leading south to the sea or north toward Waterford.
The entertaining of children was not, either in my family or in society at large, given the importance that it now is. There was nothing unusual about my being turned out of doors alone on a cold dark day with an airy instruction to play. The front door would then be closed, and the adult who had so instructed me would go back to sit by the drawing-room fire.
Usually I would loiter for a moment or two, hoping for a reprieve, before making the best of it. Ballydavid was not lacking in opportunities for the adventurous child I later became, but at five years old I was not tall enough to open the gates to the walled garden, nor was I encouraged by O'Neill to hang about the farmyard, under his feet or the hooves of the animals he cared for. I would be hard pressed, even now, to define in a couple of words O'Neill's exact position at Ballydavid, but all power over the farm lay in his hands, and his influence, although in a way not immediately apparent, possibly even to Grandmother, his employer, spread much farther afield. Very often Jock, the Highland collie, would be loitering around the front door, but that day he had found somewhere warmer and more cheerful to spend his afternoon. When it became clear I would have to amuse myself as best I could for the next hour or two, I wandered down the avenue with no destination in mind. And, with no particular enthusiasm, killing time until tea.
The avenue at Ballydavid curved and sloped gently downhill, disappearing around a bend where the mown-grass verges were interrupted by a clump of laurels. The house had been built on a hill overlooking the estuary of the river; the avenue, and then the road it led to, with stone bridges over streams and even a small hill on the way, gradually descended to the strand, a mere foot or two above the level of the sea at high tide; there it joined the narrow, sand-bordered road that followed the outline of the coast.
On either side, behind the neatly kept verge, were fields enclosed by iron railings. Only the tennis court in front of the house was not part of the small farm and garden that supplied most of the household needs. O'Neill and the two men who worked under his supervision maintained the avenue, raking the thin gravel and removing any weed that tried to take root in the stony earth. Although there was very little motorized traffic-the Sunbeam might travel up and down the avenue once or twice a week if Grandmother decided to call on her neighbors, or if the occasional visitor, reversing the process, called at Ballydavid-two worn, shallow parallel furrows lay on either side of the higher central ridge. The donkey dragged the water cart, full and heavy, up to the house every day; the wheels of the cart were metal and each day they wore a little deeper into the ground.
It was a gray dull afternoon at Ballydavid, but the sun lit the water of the estuary and as far out into the ocean as my eye could see. When I reached the bend in the avenue, I hesitated and glanced back at the house to see if anyone was watching me. But the house was closed and still, a column of gray smoke rising into the windless air from the fireplace in the library.
There was no explicit rule about being out of sight of the house, but my sense was that I was being slightly disobedient. And disobedient without any immediate benefit from my daring. I paused, considering a return to loiter outside the drawing-room window, hoping someone would take pity on me, when there was a rustling in some dry leaves under the laurels. Oonagh, my Grandmother's brindle cat, who had been prowling in the undergrowth, sauntered out. Normally, indoors, she ignored me, allowing herself to be stroked but, like most cats, not meeting my eye or quite acknowledging my presence. Now, however, she arched her back, stretched, and inclined her head toward me. I was suddenly aware of her feline grace and the shades of gray in the striped markings of her coat. It was, I suppose, the moment when I became aware of beauty; until then I had taken pleasure in the appearance of certain things-my mother when she came to kiss me goodnight, my first sight of the house as we turned the bend in the avenue, the garden in the blaze of midsummer glory-but implicit in these pleasures was their connection to me. Oonagh lying, as she now was, on the loose sandy soil at the edge of the avenue was beautiful in herself. Beauty-and, as I now understood, Oonagh-existed without me as a witness.
Naturally I lacked the ability to express this idea. Not only to communicate what I had discovered to someone else, but even the vocabulary to think it clearly. But I didn't consider that and, with one more glance at Oonagh, now scratching herself, I turned and trotted up the avenue toward the house. Instinctively avoiding the front door-knocking at it with my knuckles since I wasn't tall enough to reach the door knocker, waiting for a grown-up, and formulating an explanation for the necessity of coming indoors immediately-I made for the off-limits, but more accessible, kitchen door.
Tea was being prepared in the kitchen. Maggie, the cook, was standing in front of the large black iron stove, holding a skillet in her hands. I noticed a plate to one side, heaped with drop scones she had already made. Bridie, neatly uniformed, was waiting to carry the tea tray into the drawing room. Both women knew I was not allowed to visit the kitchen, but I had noticed that neither had much interest in enforcing rules when unwitnessed by adult members of the family. Neither really noticed me, but their lack of interest in the doings of children was different from the way I was ignored by Grandmother, or even by my mother. The maids included me, on a minor, powerless level, in whatever was going on; my presence, provided I was safe and well behaved, did not require any special acknowledgment. With my family, there was more often a feeling that I had not yet attained the right to be part of their self-contained and privileged society.
As I reached up to the china knob on the tall dark door to the drawing room, some part of me remembered my own insignificance, but I was still too excited by my discovery to contain myself. It took me a moment or two to open the door, and as I entered, my mother, having risen from her seat by the fire, was crossing the gloomy drawing room toward me. Most of the light in the room came from three long windows that looked out over the damp tennis court and fields to the river estuary. The fire, combating the cold of a rainy afternoon, was the only interior source of light; it would be another hour or two before Bridie brought in the lamps that marked the moment when I would be taken upstairs to bed.
My mother, graceful though she must have been in the sixth month of her pregnancy, looked rested and relaxed at Ballydavid in a