Joan Townsend met Hugh Bromley in Brussels in 1944 during WWII. She was a sergeant in the British army and a translator for the Royal Corps of Signals and he was a sergeant in General Patton’s 3d army. She grew up in Wimbledon, England, a London city girl and he grew up in rural Vermont never having seen a city. A friend of Joan’s, Madame Delcroix, who also worked with Hugh, introduced them on a blind date at a local restaurant. On the second date, dinner at Joan’s apartment, Hugh brought a kit bag full of containers of flour and sugar and tins of butter and sweets, things that were in short supply at the time, and Joan made them dinner. It was the first of 62 years’ worth of dinners she would make for him.
“I had a good friend, she was an American who had married a Frenchman and I couldn’t understand her at first,” Joan tells me on a sullen winter’s day as I sit with her and Hugh in their kitchen. A woodstove behind Joan keeps the room plenty warm and adds a touch of smoke to the air. Rom, their old shaggy spaniel lies at Joan’s feet keeping watch in his sleep.
“She wasn’t speaking my English at all! I asked her where she came from and she said Pittsburg, good heavens, Pittsburg! It is a wonder I understood her at all. After a while we got quite palsy and friendly, you know, and she said she had a nice young man working for her in the other office. She brought him around and we all had dinner in a restaurant we knew in the city and it was jolly good. I did all right. Hugo is honest and a hard worker, I’ll say, so I’d say we’d done all right, hadn’t we Hugo?” She reaches across to hold Hugh’s hand giving a gentle squeeze to carry them across the years.
“My folks were amazed I was getting married but not so amazed as they might have been as I had had a French boyfriend before Hugo. His name was Andre. Andre Revasso. He was a good boy, but I wasn’t so interested in him because, I don’t know, anyone could marry a Frenchman, couldn’t they?” She laughs at this, and I can see the impish gleam in her eye that she passed on to Roger.
“We didn’t have a big wedding. Oh, no, no,” Joan says shaking her head and smiling over at Hugh. “There was no song and dance-I was trying to avoid that. It always seemed to be so foolish to me. If you are going to marry somebody, it is a lifelong thing you are undertaking and I don’t want it all to center on my frock,” she says laughing. “To some people that is what it is all about but to me I was thinking about the long road ahead.” To a frugal young man from Vermont this practical young lady from London was a perfect match. Madame Delcroix had done well.
“Hugo left Brussels in March of ‘45 and I followed a few months later. He picked me up at the docks in New York City on the 1st of May and brought me by train and car up here to the farm. When we got here, I thought we were in the middle of the forest somewhere, sometimes I still do, but you know it is beautiful country so you can’t grumble. It was an absolute change of course, from what I was used to. There were no trains, no trams, no trolley buses, nothing. And fortunately, no tube.”
Hugh and Joan set up life together in the close end of the big house up on the 2nd floor. There was one big room with a gas cook stove and a big old wood stove to heat water and warm the place and four small rooms that would soon enough be full. Delos and Mame, Hugh’s parents, lived on the first floor directly below them. “Oh, I never called her Mame. She was Mary Bromley, but I always called her Mrs. Bromley. Still do, even though she been dead for 30 years.”
It took a few years for Mame to accept Joan, although from what Hugh has told me she never really did. “It was a bit tough around here at first. I think Mrs. Bromley looked down her nose at me wondering ‘what is she good for around here.’ They never asked me to do anything. We were living right above them but they never put much to me. They probably thought I was so awkward, being a city girl, I wouldn’t know anything about anything and certainly not about a cow from one end to the other. But I pitched in and did my chores and learned the program. Hugo was a good boy, always standing up for me. It was a bit of a challenge.” Joan says through a tight smile creased by understatement.
‘But I was tickled to death to think there were all these beautiful animals to stroke, you know. And horses too. They were very fine beasts and big, and so beautiful with smooth, silky faces. They were lovely. It was hard at times, oh I’ll say, but it was a good life.”
Joan was 88 when I first met her. By then, she mostly stayed inside, her body slowed and bent, her mind battling the invasion of dementia. I had to reintroduce myself to her each time I came in for a visit but she was always gracious, even jovial in our conversations. She had scant knowledge of the present but her memory of her past was vivid and I spent many hours listening to her and to Hugh’s recollections. “Have you ever visited Paris?” she would say to me. “You really should, it is a lovely place. My mother and I always went during Easter. The flowers are so beautiful.”
Joan never lost her English accent nor did she ever lose her love of language. She spoke French to whomever she thought could understand and sang French songs so often that she would drive Hugh out of the house. “She’s singing those songs again, those damn French songs. I can’t understand a goddamn thing she’s saying,” Hugh would say as he returned to the barn for late morning chores.
In the summer of ’08 Joan’s dementia deepened as her health became ever more fragile. Each morning in the barn I would ask Hugh how Joan was doing and the answer became always the same, “not too well.” As Joan’s health declined Hugh became increasingly quiet, his laugh lost, his eyes downcast.
By the end of July we all knew that Joan was ready to go. “There’s not much I can do now,” Hugh tells me one morning, “not much anyone can do now. I lay down with her and cuddle her but…” his words drifting off to the dark corners of the barn.
“It’s okay Hugh, she knows you’re there.
“I stroke her hair and hold her hand… sometimes I talk to her but it seems she’s not there.”
“She’s there, Hugh, and she knows you’re there too. You’re doing the right thing taking care of her at home, keeping her comfortable.
“Well, I don’t know,” his voice broken and shallow. “What is going to happen now? What am I going to do now? Where will she go?”
We sit in silence on bags of newspapers stacked against the barn wall. It is the first time Hugh has seemed old to me, old and very sad.
“I suppose she’ll go back to her mother.” Hugh says now talking mostly to himself, “She’s been talking ‘bout that for some time now, and back to Martin. I guess it’s time for her to go. I’m going to miss my Joanie.”
We sit in silence again, my mind failing to find the words of solace I want to share. Hugh turns his head and says to me, “there’s no one left anymore, no one. I was thinking the other day, coming up out of Danby, the people we knew, we’d talk to and go visit’n, they’re all gone now. The people she’d talk to, they’re all passed and now she’s…” Hugh’s voice is quiet, weak, his usual vigor and eagerness when telling ‘back then’ stories gone. “And now she’s going too and I’ll have no one to talk to, no one who knows my stories. It was just her and now it is just me.”
We sit in silence again. As Hugh traces faint patterns in the silage dust at his feet with his cane he speaks again, his head bowed, his body slumped. “Last week, we were sittin’ together in the kitchen and all of a sudden she gets up and walks out the door and sits on the bench on the porch. She hadn’t been able to get up by herself for a couple of weeks and she hadn’t been outside in months. We sat there for an hour, talking. She said she had always loved the view over the barnyard, across the meadows to the high barn and the mountain. We came back in and she went straight to bed. She never got up again. She hadn’t been on that porch in months but she wanted to go out one more time I guess. I wish I could take her out there again.”
Joan died in her sleep early in the morning of August 4th, Hugh sleeping fitfully on the coach in the room next door and Roger on the daybed in the parlor.
At dawn I walk into the barn and see Trish and Hugh hugging in the far manger. I go up to him and mumble, “I’m so sorry, Hugh” and he mumbles back a thin “thank you,” neither one of us able to say how we really feel. I can see his eyes are red and teary and his voice and his walk unsteady but he’s in the barn, doing his chores, sorting and clipping in the cows. He doesn’t know what else to do. After living through the sudden death of his youngest son, Martin, and now his wife, it is the one thing in his life he knows will not leave him.
I watch as he slowly crosses to the center aisle where several cows are standing, clogging up the middle and keeping the rest of the cows from their proper stalls. Leaning on an old pitchfork, he lifts his head and calls out to the cows, “Hee yah, get up to where you belong. Go on now. You don’t belong here anymore. Get on up to where you go. This isn’t your home anymore. Go on.”
It is his final prayer to his sweet Joanie.