"You must miss the weather," Irish people say to me when they first hear my accent and identify it as Australian. "How could you leave that lovely sunshine? How do you put up with all this miserable rain?" I could never use the word "miserable" to describe the Irish weather, and for good reason.
After his eighth child was born my father gave up a twenty-year teaching career and bought a farm that he"d had his eye on for years. It was opposite a sizable acreage that his own father had given him on condition he attended a Teacher Training College. The two pieces of land added together were sufficient to support a large family, provided each member supplied the labour. My father and my mother, who were both brought up on farms, were happy to return to their main interests in life: horses and cattle.
We all worked, our tasks suited to our ages. Before and after attending school we milked the seventy cows we knew by name and fed the seventy calves with the skimmed milk, separated by machine from the cream, which was sent on to the Butter Factory in town and provided our main income. We were proud to do our part. There were lots of laughs and no shirking or complaining. None of my siblings seemed to mind the unpleasant aspects of farming such as branding, ear-marking, castrating, butchering and the removal of young calves from their mothers. I did, but kept my squeamishness to myself.
Because our farm was 3,000 feet above sea level, the rains came regularly in the form of dramatic thunderstorms or heavy downpours and were the envy of the drier, flatter parts of the country. The cattle grew fat, the milk yield rose and three more babies arrived. The older siblings left home one by one, and the younger ones moved up to fill their places and take on greater responsibilities. The rains stopped seven years after our move to the farm. The grass and crops didn"t grow that summer or the summer after that. Where there used to be grass there was now cracked and dusty earth. We still had water supplied to the house and the animal troughs because we were fortunate to have a spring on the land. The water from it had already been dammed so that it could be pumped into the tanks beside the house.
Cows in the paddocks a distance from the house went to the dam to drink. The dam shrank in volume each day, leaving a width of deep mud around its edges. In the course of one week five of the cows became bogged in the mud up to their bellies before they could reach the water, and didn"t have the strength to lift out their legs. We brought them buckets of water to drink and tried to save them with the help of an improvised sling made from a tarpaulin, ropes, pulleys and a weakened draught horse, but only one could be pulled out and she died three days later. The other four died where they stood.
My mother had a habit of lying down on a double bed at night to soothe the younger ones until they settled for the night. My place was in the second double bed in the girls" room which I shared with my sister who always fell asleep too soon, just as I was warming up to talk. One night I heard unfamiliar sounds in the dark coming from the direction of the other bed. My father appeared at the door holding a kerosene lamp. "What"s the matter?" he asked my mother. I stayed rigid in the bed and hoped I wouldn"t cough. My mother took a while to answer. "The bills," she said, drawing in a hiccuping sob. "How are we going to pay the bills?" My father answered softly, "Don"t worry. It will rain soon."
It didn"t. All denominations of churches said public prayers, aborigines enacted special rain dances, and ordinary people looked up into the cloudless skies, some cursing, some crying, some begging. All feeling helpless. Grocery bills weren"t paid. Everything necessary was bought on credit, with the understanding that all bills would be settled after the rains came. Very few farmers could afford to import hay to feed their starving stock.
It was three years before the drought broke. Many farms and businesses never recovered, and friends and neighbours left the district. All our seventy cows that we knew by name, as well as our magnificent old draught horse, died and their carcasses rotted unburied on the parched earth. I have lived in Dublin for over thirty years, and have recently completed my first novel. I look up at intervals while I"m typing to marvel at all that beautiful rain running down the plate glass windows and, further out, soaking into the green parklands. Who could wish for a more perfect day than this?
It's Never Too Late
It's never too late.
In the earlier part of my life I went through phases that usually lasted for five years, after which time they faded out and left me free to transfer my attention to something else. Some people took these phases as signs of a weak character. I took them as a sign that there were a lot of interesting things in the world and we have a limited time to discover them. While waiting to fill our empty house with children my husband and I thought it might be a good idea to first fill it with furniture seeing we didn"t own a stick. I was introduced to auctions, and became hooked after sitting through the first one. Five years of frenzied bidding followed. We ended up with the house so stuffed with second hand bargains that we were forced to walk around sections of the house sideways. My final purchase was a huge oak wardrobe, glossy with age. Most sensible people had forsaken wardrobes for built-ins by then so I didn"t have much opposition and got it for "30. My long-suffering husband"s dislike of the piece was so extreme I had to pay the two exhausted removal men, who had just finished manoeuvring it up the stairs and assembling it, to pull it apart again and take it back to the auction rooms. It later sold for "4 and helped signal the end of that particular phase.
"You"re telling me you cut up pieces of fabric and sew them back together again? By hand?" a friend asked in disbelief. "It"s very calming," I said. "And I have to do something while I"m keeping my eye on the children." For the children had arrived: two beauties who were lucky to become a lifelong delight, escaping the fate of being classed as a phase. While they grew and flourished I sewed together fabric squares, diamonds, strips and circles in medium, dark and light shades to create three-dimensional effects. By the time every bed in the house was covered by a patchwork quilt and every available wall space covered by hangings my neck had become so painful and immobile that all forms of sewing became impossible. The constant bending over was blamed for my condition. As it turned out that wasn"t the case but by the time the real cause (ankylosing spondylitis) was diagnosed, my interest in stitching had evaporated.
Later five-year interests ran concurrently or overlapped. They included gardening, art history, theology, fashion, paper making and pastel portraiture. At the age of fifty I took up painting. No more phases after this, I believed. There was so much to learn that ten lifetimes wouldn"t provide enough time to scratch the surface. Colour is the most important ingredient, I thought at first. No, subject matter is. A good eye should choose an arresting composition " that was the defining thing. What about the individuality of brushstrokes? The seduction of lost edges? It was exhilarating wrestling with these questions on a daily basis and I had no wish to move on to anything else. But there was one more surprise in store for me after I turned sixty. During an enforced break from painting I began to write to pass the time. That"s how it started, anyway, but it wasn"t long before writing took over my life. Relatives and friends were dragged in to read one draft after another so that we could discuss the characters as if they were real people. (I secretly thought they were more interesting than real people.) We argued over their fates. One villain almost caused a split among us as we couldn"t agree if she should be redeemed or punished. I was forced to make the final decision which was only fair seeing I had allowed her to put her devious plan into action in the first place.
So here I am in my seventieth year buoyed up by two enthralling occupations. I have had many creative interests in my life, but, apart from the wonder of giving birth, I think I have kept the best until last. It"s never too late to do the things you love.
We were told that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus to listen to his every word, had chosen a better part than Martha, who was working away in the kitchen clearing up and preparing food. Following on from that example, we convent girls believed that the nuns who stayed in an enclosed order praying day and night were superior to those in the world, working with the poor and the sick. In my seventieth year I finished my first novel. Writing it turned out to be such a rewarding process that I wished I hadn"t waited so long to surround myself with imaginary friends and manipulate their lives into stories.
After marrying my Irishman it took me five years to become a mother. I spent those five years thinking. That"s what married women did in those days while they waited. In the end I was lucky to have a boy and a girl. Rearing them would be my life"s work, so I thought. Those early years were absorbing, fulfilling and busy and I presumed they would go on forever, but after a while I noticed something completely unexpected happening. As each year passed things became easier. Measurably easier. By the time both children were at school fulltime I had lots more time for thinking.
Most adults I knew in Australia went to bed at eight o"clock and rose with the sun at six, so Ireland"s customs had come as a surprise to me when I first arrived in this country and saw people waiting until after ten to head out to meet their friends. The only time they saw the sunrise was after they stayed up the whole night and happened to notice it on their way home. Australians didn"t talk much and were able to fix things. The Irish were eloquent talkers who would get a man in to adjust the irregularity in the plumbing rather than attempting to fix it themselves. When the sun comes up early in Australia it draws you from your bed and doesn"t leave you alone, compelling you out of doors where you do exhausting things all day, preferably in the water, leaving you just enough time to tinker with your car engine to have it ready for the morning, before going straight to bed for an early night. In Ireland during the long cold nights of winter what is there to do but congregate in a warm place and swap stories until after midnight? Was it climate and geography that created differences between nations, I wondered.
The evangelical puritan thinks that life after death is the only life of value and lives this one full of deprivation and suffering, even to the point of offering up his life or taking the life of another to clock up credit in his account in the heavens. A form of spiritual avarice. Could religion be the predominant shaping force of nations? People in countries that are rich in oil, minerals and primary produce may lead destitute lives if the wealth is siphoned off by the powerful few at the top. Are economics or politics the most important factor in the welfare of a country? As with nations, could it also be with people?
I thought about the lives of those around me and summoned up the lives of those I had left behind, trying to work out the mysteries of human behaviour, prompted by a fascination with the manifestations of evolutionary biology. Why were some people predominately ethical, likable, bossy, depressed, generous, needy, ambitious, tolerant, avaricious, illogical, self-righteous, altruistic, selfish or optimistic, while others people showed the opposite characteristics? Most fascinating of all was trying to fathom the rules of the mating game. Why on earth did he choose her, why would a young woman marry an old man, why did things fall apart, why would the daughter of an alcoholic marry an alcoholic when you would think she would run in the opposite direction whenever she met one, why did he take as a spouse a queen bee he was half afraid of, and why was that pair a perfect match? What part did class, power, money and looks play in the selection of a partner? I didn"t come to any definite conclusions, but was left with a consuming interest in the nature versus nurture debate, which is a good interest to have if you want to write a novel. I enjoyed all that thinking at the time, but I wonder if I would have been better off with more doing and less thinking. Hmmm.
green green green green green
blue blue blue blue blue