During my stay at the Ashford Castle, located in western Ireland, I was fortunate enough to meet a group of Ireland’s High Court Justices, who were kind enough after hearing about my recent 13-year break up, to loan me their driver on Valentine’s Day while they were in meetings. This kind gesture led to a scenic drive past the Monks Fishing House along the water and into town near the statue of John Wayne carrying Maureen O’hara, a tribute to the film, The Quiet Man. I thought the small streets would be bustling with Valentine’s Day lovers sharing a romantic night out. But it was quiet in the town of Cong, cool and damp with very few people strolling the streets.
Accustomed to eating alone, I bought a nice book along to read at whatever little Cong restaurant would have me. I settled on a small adorable eatery in town. The name escapes me but I do recall the hostess mentioning that the chef once cooked for Queen Elizabeth. The décor was simple with charming table cloths and wooden chairs. The hostess took me to a small table for two just a few seats away from the only other people in the restaurant, an older Irish couple who seemed to be adoring each other. I didn’t want to disturb their romantic evening together, so I ordered rather quickly and opened my book to look like I was minding my own business.
The gentleman was facing my table. We glanced at each other occasionally sharing meaningful smiles with direct eye to eye contact, the kind of smile that beckons questions such as Who are you? Where do you come from and what made you come here on this day? I could see his bright baby blues from where I was sitting, cradled by what I call love wrinkles. Most people refer to them as crow’s feet. But his were clearly love wrinkles, lines gradually telling the story of a lifetime. Love, appreciation and gratitude were gently imprinted in this man’s face.
I was so curious about their life together. Silently observing their romantic interlude bestowed a bit of hope on my bleak situation without either of them saying a word to me. I could hear them chatting very quietly about how long they had been married, some murmurs of ups and downs. One thing was very clear. They loved each other. He was holding her hands and sitting very close to her, looking into her eyes with complete contentment. They were smiling that kind of googly eyed smile, like when you first meet the one you know you are going to marry and you can’t keep the grin from your lips.
Our dinners came out at the same time. I remember thinking the food was slightly questionable for a chef that supposedly cooked for the queen. And my neighbors weren’t too fond of the food either. I could hear them whispering about it, but we all decided to say nothing and dig in, knowing deep down there was no way the queen would have indulged. Watching them I was torn. I didn’t want to interrupt their romantic dinner but wanted so much to reach out and say hello. Fortunately for me, just as we were finishing up, the couple shifted their chairs toward me. The gentleman stood up and cleared his throat. And with a sense of curiosity and kindness asked, “Won’t you come over here dear and share an after dinner drink with an old couple?”
The woman smiled and nodded her head yes as if she wouldn’t consider taking no for an answer. My heart melted. I immediately accepted their generous offer and pulled up a chair. Pat and Ray asked me what I was doing alone in Ireland on Valentine’s Day and like the justices, took pity on me and my sad little story, telling me there was someone out there just for me. We talked for quite some time about family and love. I told them I dreamed of taking my parents to Ireland as all my father’s relatives were Irish and living in County Clare. We had a lovely conversation before I realized my borrowed driver would soon be outside to take me back to the castle. I wished Pat and Ray a beautiful Valentine’s to which they extended an invitation to visit them when I returned with my parents.
While I was paying my bill, I asked the hostess to give me theirs as well. I did not want them to know, so I suggested the hostess tell them they won a free dinner because they were the first diners in on the most romantic day of the year. She was unsure of how that would go over, but it seemed to work. I watched them both light up at such a kind gesture and quietly made my exit. It felt wonderful. My broken heart was on the mend. There is nothing like doing something kind for someone else to get you out of your funk. Three weeks later, after driving all over Ireland alone, I returned to McLean, Va. ready to begin a new life. And a new life it was. Two months after I returned from Ireland, I met my future husband at steeplechase in Middleburg. My heart was no longer broken. Love found me just as Pat and Ray promised. They would have been so happy for me. I wondered about them often.
One day about four months after I returned from Ireland, I opened my mail box to find a letter from Ireland. It was from Pat and Ray. I did not remember telling them where I lived, but it was clear after reading their three page letter that they both went to great lengths to find me. It turns out the charming couple returned to our tiny little restaurant to thank the owners for the lovely Valentine’s Day meal only to find out the meal was not free, but rather a kind gesture from a complete stranger. An American stranger. Well, not really a stranger after our lovely conversation, but certainly someone they may never see again. “Imagine our surprise, then, when they informed us they had not, in fact, given us a meal free of charge that night… We were shocked of course and we tried hard with the help of a friend that worked at that time at the Ashford Castle to get the name of the person who had shown us such kindness that night, however, it has taken just until recently for us to be able to obtain your name and address and we are keeping our fingers crossed that our detective work has been successful, so that we would be able to pass on to you our very long overdue thanks for that wonderful gesture. It is something that will live with us always. Thank you! Thank you!”
The letter went on to again extend an invitation to visit with them when I returned with my parents. Reading these kind words made my heart melt with gratitude as my eyes welled up with tears of joy. I wanted desperately to write them back and stay in touch after all they went through to find me. I wanted to tell them all about the wonderful man I met when I got home. But the address was illegible. I took the envelope to an Irish friend who couldn’t make it out either. There was no Google search at the time and I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant. I had no receipts. No way of knowing how to reach them. So I kept the letter in a drawer with all of my important documents.
Eighteen years later, married, with a 15-year-old boy, I came across the letter while I was cleaning out all of our old paperwork as we do from time to time. My father happened to be standing right beside me. My heart had that old warm familiar feeling. Gratitude. I opened the letter and shared it with my father who urged me to try and Google Pat and Ray. Since I had a difficult time reading the name and address, we spent some time typing in different variations until an obituary popped up on my screen. It had to be Pat. As I began to read, “Kathleen (Patsy) Matkin …deeply regretted by her loving family, husband Ray”, I burst into tears. She passed away just a year ago. Oh no! I thought. I’ve waited too long. Life just got away from me and now she is gone. My father suggested writing the funeral home to share the story of how Pat and Ray invited me to sit and talk with them about the importance of family and love eighteen years ago on Valentine’s Day. I did just that and attached that precious letter in hopes that it would find its way to Ray. I don’t know if he will receive it just as they didn’t know whether I would receive their letter. It’s been four months and I have not heard anything, but I will not give up hope. Nor will I ever forget that beautiful evening, that chance meeting with the lovely Pat and Ray Matkin. They are etched in my heart forever.