An Old Farmer Doesn't Die

They say it’s going to be an early fall and by the feel of the wind that blows in from the north today, I have few doubts that the summer season is over. Soon I’ll be filling pails with deep red skinned apples, pulling carrots and onions out of the garden and piling wood in the shed. Like passing through a pasture gate for the very last time, this inevitable change, feels more dramatic than usual.

“I want to remember him the way he was. I won’t visit him again.” the man on the other end of the telephone says. I’ve called him to find out how an old neighbor of mine is. I’ve heard he isn’t doing too well. “When was the last time you saw him?” the man asks, to which I answer, “Actually, it was only two or three weeks ago. We stood on the side of the road one day. We talked to each other for over an hour!” “Well that’s something he didn’t do with too many people,” says the man I talk to. “You might be better off if you just remembered that.”

Lyman Herrick, a man I’ve known since moving to Norway in 1973, was my very good friend. In fact over the years we who have lived on the backside of Pikes Hill have developed a great affection for him. Whether he was swinging the big orange wing of the big town plow truck in the wee hours of a winter’s night or running the cutter bar of his grass green John Deere tractor over the roadsides in mid-summer, he always seemed to be taking care of the neighborhood. To imagine this landscape without him was as unthinkable as picturing him in a white sheeted hospital bed. Most people weren’t sure they wanted to see him this way, including, at most moments, me.

So I vacillated , after a while afraid to call. While I sat on the precipice of indecision for one entire week, miraculously, he held on.

On a warm dry Saturday, one week short of the end of August, I awakened knowing I had made a decision. “Was Lyman Herrick still accepting visitors?” was how I put it when I called the hospital. They transferred me to his room. His wife Rosa said she was about to take him home. Of course I could visit.

“I don’t know, I just feel like I need to be near him one more time,” I told my son when he called me later that morning. My son understood my attachment to this man, how he was the last one in a long line of people who had been important in my life, for who they were and what they’d taught me about living.

Rosa met me at the door. “Come on in,” she said. “He’s sitting up in bed.” When I entered the living room where the hospital bed was, he was actually standing. “Hi Pam,” he said when he looked up and saw me. I reached to hug him and he managed to laugh a little when I said I’d heard he liked hugs.

He didn’t speak often over the two hours I was there, but when he did, I could still hear his unique way of talking. Mostly he sat on the edge of his hospital bed where if he looked he could see the cows on the pasture on one side of the house and the tractor going by on the other.

While we visited I glanced around the room. Over the fireplace was a John Deere Avenue street sign. On a wall by the kitchen there was an old plaque that said, “An old farmer doesn’t die. He just gets put out to seed.”

Every once in a while, as if the man on the bed still had his old strength, with the help of two hands he pulled himself to his feet. He walked in small steps around the living room with the aid of a wooden cane which had the words John Deere carved into its handle. He listened to his wife and me talk about the farm. Then he said, “There ain’t no money in farming.” Mostly he sat with his eyes closed and three times he smiled at me. There were those eyes, a deep luminous blue, that half-cocked smile to one side.

“Catch you later.” was what he said when I kissed him good-by. His eyes did not meet mine.

It was early the next morning when his wife Rosa called to tell me that Lyman had died a little before dawn. “Aren’t you glad you came yesterday,” she said. Of course I said that I was. A few hours later, I remembered my early morning dream. My old friend was as he had been that day. Thin beyond belief, shrunken as if his body didn’t mean anything, he smiled at me one more time. Then he changed into a younger version of himself. This time his overalls fit instead of hanging. His face was bronzed. His farmer’s body was robust and strong. His hug was as hard as any I have ever had.

The season pulls cold into the nights and color into the trees and though the signs are here, as hard as it is to believe that fall has come, it’s harder to believe that Lyman Herrick is gone. I see him hauling the manure spreader. I see him coming in from the back fields last fall. I see him proudly handing me a glass jug of milk from one of his Holstein cows. I see him haying over and over again all of the neighborhood’s fields. He always lamented the harshness of the farmer’s life and at the same time he wanted no other. I see all of these things. And placed right up next to them I see the way he was on that very last day when it was all he could do to balance his big strong hands on the curve of his John Deere cane. “By God,” as he would say, he was determined to do it anyway.

Pamela Chodosh © 1998

Posted by Pamela at March 11, 2004 8:44 AM