by Hugh Gilmore

In 1988, when my son Colin died and my feelings were as raw as they’ve ever been, we escaped to Belfast, Maine. We stayed at a bed and breakfast maintained by two stouthearted people who were also making a go of organic farming.

The place was called Fiddler’s Green Farm. My wife, Janet, discovered this charming B&B through a New York Times article that featured the farm and its operators, Richard Stander and Nancy Galland.

Nancy had grown up to the farming life in Hadley, Mass., tried English teaching for a while, but held fiercely to the idea of being an organic farmer someday. Her farm had to be in New England. She’d imprinted early in life on the smell of that soil and nothing else would do.

Richard was from Brooklyn. He’d worked as a carpenter and also as a Yale-trained clinical psychologist. When he met Nancy she rescued him from cubicle life. They lived a rough, but earth-bound existence for a few years. Eventually they survived a competitive interview that earned them the right to run Fiddler’s Green with the stipulation that they’d operate Fiddler’s Green as an organic farm.

By the strength of their backs and the brawn of their arms they did so. And in time, to supplement their income, they milled and packaged and sold their own porridge and muffin and buckwheat pancake mixes. And also tried their hand at using part of their home as a B&B: “Come vacation on a real working farm.”

Shortly after that the Gilmores arrived. Our son, Andrew, was less than two-years-old at the time. I maintained a decent enough front when with people, but any sensitive person could easily tell I was a battered soul.

Much of that summer remains hazy, but I remember Richard sitting with me on the screened-in porch listening with the kind and compassionate attention of someone who genuinely cared about other people.

He and Nancy were kind, welcoming and all-embracing of our family.

In fact, we’ve all been friends since. We stayed with them again the following year, but they wouldn’t let us be paying guests. They closed the B&B the next year, but kept inviting us to stay when we came to Maine. We probably did once or twice more, but eventually we stayed further down the road at Janet’s cousin’s cottage. But visits with Richard and Nancy were always the emotional center of our yearly trip to Maine.

For us city folks, nothing in our experience compared with sitting in a farm kitchen helping snap beans or dry berries or help with any of the many chores required of people who choose to live and eat a healthy, clean life. I remember the steamed windows and cooking smells and the sounds of laughter and fervent talk as among the most intense pleasures of my life.

The laws of economics and spinal columns eventually won the ages-old struggle to wrench a living from the earth. Richard and Nancy bought a piece of ground in Stockton Springs facing Penobscot Bay. Richard rebuilt and expanded the small house that had been there. They sold Fiddler’s Green and moved.

We remained friends, but the drive past their old farm on Route 52 always tugs at us now. This year the sign outside changed to read “Olde Fiddler’s Green Farm.” The new owners raise shorthorn beef cattle – about ten of them from our most recent count as we drove past this week. The husband also maintains a law office there, according to his shingle.

Last December, after a hard-fought struggle, Richard died, putting a hole in our collective life where the beloved idea of “Richard and Nancy and Maine” had been. We weren’t able to attend the memorial service last January. This summer we would be coming to see Nancy at their House-that-Richard-built in Stockton Springs.

We turned off the two-lane macadam road through a subtle separation of the bushes and wild flowers you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t know where to look. The path curved through the spruce trees along the winding dirt road. After rounding the last bend, we saw their house again. It looked plain but lovely as a jewel in the way it stood against the brilliance of the deep blue bay.

I parked near Nancy’s wooden studio (she’s a potter too) and tooted. We walked forward. The white door opened and our sweet little friend stepped out on the unfinished wooden porch and stood bare-footed as always, with her arms open. Just her, just one person there now. We saw her for the first time since. Tears were inevitable.

Their home still smelled of Richard to me. We saw Nancy several times this week. We laughed. We talked. We toasted Richard. It was wonderful, but a bit lop-sided, as though a wheel were missing. It will take a while till we all regain our balance.

Nancy gave me one of Richard’s heavy flannel shirts. It doesn’t quite fit. But I’ll wear it this fall anyway when I’m working in the yard, trying to get ready again for winter.

Hugh is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine,’ a noir bibliomystery, and “Scenes from a Bookshop,” a story collection.

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