I have a friend in Ireland who doesn’t use email, so reaching him from California can be tricky. The 8-hour difference makes a phone call difficult to time; I resort to letter-writing. In a way this is fun: When else do I get to write phrases like, Hence this letter? My friend’s traditional style extends to most parts of his life. He is not an unsophisticated or untraveled person; he studied in England and was a banker for years in Chicago before moving back to Ireland after inheriting an estate. A year ago or so I received a letter from him. Concerned about the sale of one of the big houses in the area of north County Kildare where I stay in the summer, he wrote me to ask, using slightly more subtle language, if I had any rich American friends who might want to buy it. The snobbishness was implicit: If the wrong sort of people buy the place, there goes the neighborhood. The letter was on paper so thick it was like opening up a letter from the queen herself. I happen to have one of the private Christmas cards the Obamas send out to friends (given to my daughter by someone she knows who is close to them), and the engraved and tipped-in interior of the card, signed by all four Obamas and the dog, has nothing on this stationery.
Drummin, my friend’s house, is what the Irish call a middle-sized mansion. Set back from the road on broad acreage, it is a small Georgian house, modest but still imposing, its external austerity belying the grace of the interior rooms, where he often entertains. Luncheon is at 1, beginning in the small sitting room, surrounded by books. Books are his passion; the books he orders by mail come in a steady stream. They are piled up on the floor and in front of the glass-front mahogany bookcases. One small side table always has several stacks of books perched so precariously that it looks like the table will tip over, like an outsized game of Jenga.
After sherry for me, something stronger for him, we move to the dining room where the housekeeper, Mary, has set out platters on the sideboard—meat, potato, two veg. We sit at the table and he pours the wine. Mary herself clears the plates and brings in dessert. She stays to chat for a few minutes, then leaves for the day. We finish the meal, go back to the sitting room, let the talk drift well into the late afternoon. Sometimes we are joined by a mutual friend, a barrister of some repute who is usually dropped off by taxi and stays for coffee or more drink. On the days he comes, I drive him home to his newer and much grander country house, where we might talk over coffee for another hour or two as the shadows deepen into evening.
Dinner parties at Drummin are more formal. It’s eight for eight-thirty, drinks in the large drawing room, dinner around the table with frayed linen and silver (always boy girl boy girl boy girl, an uneven balance being unthinkable). Conversation is conventional, polite and always remarkably stimulating.
These experiences are fleeting these days, mercifully so in many ways. Yet the pull of them is compelling, a reminder of an old life almost completely gone now, one that is rooted in whiteness and privilege but also history and reminiscence and a passion for repartee and smart conversation about music, art, literature, politics. My grandmother’s life, one kind of life that I am grateful for knowing and always look forward to when I head back to Ireland.