Farewell to Danny
by Anne Schwartz of Rockport, WA
Receiving a copy of “Farmer Pirates, Dancing Cows”, the most recent book by Lynn Miller, was the perfect antidote to summer. Reading one particular essay, Mrs. Janes Beans, became almost a weekly event and was shared with my own bittersweet experience that was unfolding.
Selling at a Farmers Market means developing relationships. Sometimes difficult customers can become almost close and special in unintended ways. We had an elderly female customer who was very picky, slow and took a lot of time to deal with. She wasn’t in good health and was suffering from a respiratory disease that was well-established by the time we met her. My mother too suffers from chronic respiratory disease and as medics in the local fire department, we have helped many older people with that ailment over the years. Perhaps, for that reason, it was easy for me to develop a strong compassion for her and want to go out of my way to help her. She became a very devoted customer, truly a Blue Heron Farm Fan. She actually lived in the next town, only eight miles away, but we grew to know her at market, some 60 miles away in the small city of Mt. Vernon where we sold every Saturday. Her name was Danny and she had a quick smile and bright energy even as she became quite an invalid. It often made me wonder what she was like when she was young and in the heyday of her life.
She was a devoted cook and frequently told us the recipes she would use in her weekly meals. We saw her every week at the market and she was the kind of person that would tell us if she was going to be out of town and not be at the market the following week. We have a lot of customers like this, people we see every week that love our food and it becomes a serious reason for doing what we do. The feedback is generally very positive and in kind, rewarding on many levels.
The first year we knew Danny, she was still walking and getting around, but ever more slowly. In our second year, she was carrying portable oxygen and often was accompanied by a good friend. It was their Saturday excursion; head to town, pick up a week’s supplies, then head back upriver to cook a fine meal. By the third year she was pretty much in a wheel chair on oxygen full time, but remained cheerful and as energetic as she could be. She was a tough woman, but years of living on oxygen take their toll and in the springtime this year, she called me on the phone in the middle of the always too busy Friday, harvest day and prep for market day. At first I didn’t figure out who it was and what she wanted because she didn’t have much breath and was difficult to understand. But then I realized it was Danny, and I sat down and slowed to her pace. She told me she was dying, but wanted our food just as soon as the first crops came on. She was still eating well, she had some help to prepare meals and she was savoring for the flavor, freshness and goodness of our berries and produce. And so I came to look forward to those lunch time Friday calls. I was actually surprised at how much she ordered in those last weeks. Maybe she was feeding some other folks at the same time. This weekly ritual began to affect me very deeply and I found myself quite emotional after each phone call, while I packed her box before the market and after her friend would come to pick up her box. She was low income and had to watch where each dollar went. She had her limit to what she could spend each week and we made sure she got extra blueberries or another couple of handfuls of sugar snap peas every week.
I remember her asking after the first green beans, but it was only June and July and the bean plants hadn’t yet made flowers.
I have the great fortune to have a wonderful young woman in her fourth year working on our farm and she recently purchased a new camera and took to keeping it in her truck and taking lots of pictures. So she put together a great set of pictures of the crew, the fields, the magnificent view of the mountains from our farm, boxes of fresh picked berries and vegetables, washing and packing in preparation for market and finally, pictures of the market table just before the market opens when everything is in huge piles of perfect abundance. We started including these photos of the farm in her weekly boxes. This touched her deeply and she was so appreciative when she called. On one of those Friday calls, she told me the folks from Hospice were there and she was on morphine so she was having a hard time talking to me. But she told me that she was showing the farm pictures to all her visitors and they were enjoying the berries from last week. I knew it was my time to say farewell. Though her friend told me the doctor said she would have a few more months, my experience told me different. And the next Friday, there was no phone call, nor the week after that. I looked in the paper, but never saw anything about her passing. I called her phone number, but there was no answer and I knew she was gone.
It was a remarkable experience, that touched me on a very deep level. I marveled at how profound it was, at how long it hung on me, lingering and visiting me at odd and frequent moments as I moved about my days. I still wonder at the power it has on me and accept that there is a mystery about it that I just have to stay with a bit longer. Her appreciation of our work is a part of it, but it was just amazing to think about how important our food was to her in her final days and the connection that relationship says about the world. It is difficult to capture, to use this critical relationship to demonstrate to the bigger world around us how important human scale agriculture is. How much these relationships can sustain us and bring a deep connection that makes our life work critically important to us, to her and to those in our circles around us. Over the course of the rest of the summer I finally said my farewell to Danny and let go of the wish I had been harboring to go and bring her to this farm, so she would really have known it a little bit closer to the earth.