Hugh Bromley died early this morning in his sleep in the same room, in the same bed that his wife, Joan, died in 4 years ago. He was in his 96th year, as he would say, the last of the sixth generation of Bromley dairy farmers in Danby. All but four of his years he spent on the farm watching as the first gas lights and then electric lights came into the valley, the first car came up the road, the first voices were heard over a wire and the first tractor pulled a wagon up the hills. He fought with Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated two German concentration camps and when he got home he fought for what he thought was right in Danby as a selectman and an active citizen. I knew him as a sweet old man and I loved him dearly.
Last fall Roger and Trish moved from their little house to the big, empty house where Hugh lived all by himself. This is the same house in which Hugh spent his childhood, brought his new wife to after the war, raised a family and saw Joan pass away. Trish’s mother, Enid, moved into the house in the fall as well to be closer to the care from her daughter. Together, the four of them (and a menagerie of pets) reanimated the old house and made it once again a warm old home.
Up until his last few days Hugh lived in his recliner in the extended kitchen- parlor in the front of the house. In February macular degeneration stole the last of his eyesight and by March arthritis had robbed him of his mobility. Unable to get to the barn just a couple hundred feet away he spent all of his time in his recliner, sleeping, eating and listening to the farm go by. In May as the grass greened the meadows with the promise of hay, Hugh began to finally fade away as frailty and delirium savagely crept through his body.
This last week I visited him often. He always remembered me and recognized my voice and would ask me what was happening on the farm. He knew it was getting on to be June and that it was time for Roger to finish up down at Hoppers and start planting in the corn patch below the house. He also always remembered Abe, “you old scoundrel’ he would say, and would reach out his hand to find Abe’s head and give it a little scratch.
I will miss my old friend; miss his stories, his twinkle in his eye, his steadfastness, his stubbornness. Hugh, along with Roger and Trish, introduced me to the farm and in many ways to a new, richer life. His generosity and his acceptance of a ‘flatlander’ in his barn opened up my world and filled it with incredible joy and wonderment. I will forever be thankful for my time with him. It was an amazing gift and I am a much better person for knowing and loving him.
And now I sit on the bale of hay Hugh would sit on in the milking barn as he waited for Roger to catch up and finish milking. Piper, the barn cat, sits on my thigh just as he sat on Hugh’s and Abe lies quietly at my feet as he did with Hugh waiting for an old hand to reach down and stroke his head.
Hugh would sit here and watch the old cows in front of him eat their silage. “This one can really eat, she’s been a good ol’ cow. But them sons of bitches,” he would say, pointing to the ones next to her with his ski pole cane, “ they aint good for nothing.” And then he would stand and push a shovel up the manger, one of the last chores he could do in the barn.
I’d often sit next to him and we would talk. Mostly he would talk and I would be happy to listen. More often than not it was the back-when stories he so loved to tell and I so loved to hear. I’d write as many of them down as I could but my ear missed more than it caught and I lament now all the lost stories. My heart, though, never missed a thing and every year, sitting with Hugh, it grew fuller. Eventually Hugh would stop and we would quietly watch the cows quietly watch us. Then he would slowly stand, mumble a “yer a good ol gal” to his favorite cows and shuffle down the manger and slowly out the barn.
He has shuffled down his last manger now, off for good to rest on another bale of hay. I know he’s still watching over the farm but now his sweet Joanie is by his side. After 60 years of being together I am sure the last four have been terribly lonely for both of them. Joan is probably humming a little French tune and Hugh is most certainly wearing his old brown rubber boots, a tattered barn jacket and a crazy old hat ready for the next chores.
There are probably not many old cows up there in heaven for Hugh to talk to but there must be plenty of old tractors and acres and acres of tall, grassy meadows. And certainly there are piles and piles of cow shit. Without all these things why else would a dairy farmer call it Heaven?
I will miss you my friend. I will miss you a lot. Rest easy.