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Monday, November 24, 2014

A Valley Patriarch Passes…

Berryman BroersA dreary day in the Valley as I walk along amid a spattering of rain. “I see the coffee gang is holding court at the Broers’ watering hole this morning,” I think as I note several cars in their driveway. More than usual this morning, it seems….

The last few years I’ve been slightly envious of Tony’s coffee gang, ever hopeful that one day as I pass, the front door will swing open and the Lord of the Manor will invite me in for some morning banter and a cup of good homebrewed coffee. But it never happened. Nor will it today. Nor will it ever.

On the return leg in the drizzling  rain I approach Tony’s driveway just in time to see Ed’s gray SUV back out onto the highway. I wait as he jockeys into the lane and am surprised as the window slides down. The first words out of my mouth are, “How’s your dad?” I’m not sure why I asked the question…perhaps the fact there were more cars than usual for morning coffee …or maybe because it’s been awhile since I’ve seen his dad. Ed’s reply stunned me: “Dad died yesterday.” Just as I suspected: too many cars for a friendly coffee session….

It is not my place to discuss the particulars of Tony’s passing. I know he had been suffering from failing health for sometime. Let me just say that old age crept up on him, as it will us all, and tripped him up. This will be a lonelier place without Tony. He was a good friend and neighbor to the Valley, to me, to us all.

I can’t remember when Tony and I first met, but it was in the days when he was the Valley’s Berry King. A neighbor once told me Tony had tried his hand at the dairy business, but his efforts met with minimal success. With the cultivation of berries, however, he found his calling; raspberries, strawberries, thornless blackberries, all flourished under his care. Marion berries even, in spite of Tony’s condemnation of their thorniness: “I hate those bastards!” he would chuckle.

Berries. Tony’s raising them made it seem the easiest thing in the world. His luscious strawberries the size of golf balls inspired me to try my hand at strawberry cultivation. And it was Tony I turned to for advice…and plants. The plants, I recall, were left over from a spring planting in one of his berry fields, a hundred or so of them. I carted the lot home, tilled up a patch of garden, and set to work planting them. In those days all that divided our property and the West Valley were pasture and two or three broken down fences.

I was down on my knees, troweling holes in a crooked row, stuffing each with a node of strawberry when a pair of boots hove into view. I looked up from my labors to discover Tony standing over me, smiling away at my efforts. “Here, let me show you a trick,” he said as he demonstrated how to boot stomp each plant into the hole. “Use a sharp stob to poke your holes, set the plant and stomp it in,” he said, “Spares you from crawling around in the dirt and saves time.” Sound advice from a good neighbor who had walked a  good quarter mile of pasture and crossed a couple fences just to share it.

I discovered raising strawberries was hard work, more effort than I was willing to exert, and after a couple of seasons of dirtied, sore hands from weeding, I tilled the patch under in disgust and planted a less demanding crop. Hard work and strawberry farming went hand in hand, but not my hands. Not so with Tony. His berries thrived because of his work ethic. I recall sitting by the woodstove one cold, blustery day in February with the spit of snow in the wind. Out across the Valley a lone figure braved the elements. Immediately I knew who it was …Tony, hoe in action, out in his strawberries, getting the upper hand on the weeds of spring…. Hard work; Tony welcomed it.

Years ago Tony left his prim, white farmhouse and stately barn and moved up the road. There he built a new residence, neat and trim, painted it a “spring” Valley green, and set about landscaping his yard. The new lawn, like everything else Tony planted (his berry rows looked like each had been laid out with a surveyor’s transit and plumb line), would have been the envy of any golf course or ball field greens keeper. I coveted his lawn. Not a sunny head of dandelion or hummock of mole mound to be seen. One spring day I was out for my walk and noticed Tony puttering about his yard. On a devilish whim I plucked the stem of a dandelion gone to seed, and as soon as he saw me, I pretended to blow the seeds in the direction of that immaculate lawn and for my teasing received a fist shake tempered by a smile and that delightful twinkle of his eye. Tony in the Fall

In all the years we’ve lived in the Valley, I only received one Christmas card from Tony and it was because of his lawn. I knew, as I’m sure he did, that when one shares a valley with a nation of moles, it was just a matter of time before one leaves the reservation, crosses the road and makes itself at home tunneling and mounding your yard. I’d ask him about his lawn and why it remained mole-free. “I don’t need any of those devils,” was all he’d reply. But no Valley lawn, Tony’s included, can escape molestation. Early December—the lawn was only a year or two old—I strolled by Tony’s place and noticed—with a bit of glee, I shamefully admit—a half dozen fresh mole mounds sprouting like acne from the green sward of that pristine lawn. “How to rub it in?” I wondered, and given the season, I thought I’d reward Tony’s moles with a little holiday installation (“From the Archives…A Christmas Card from the Valley,” 12/24/2010). A visit to the local craft store netted me a miniature Christmas tree, ornaments and all. Early the next morning before daybreak I hoofed it to Tony’s yard, placed the decoration smack dab in the middle of the encroaching mounds, and staked it firmly in the ground. In the mail a couple days later I received a Christmas card from Tony Broers. Below the card’s sentiment Tony (his eyes a’ twinkle, I’m sure) had written: “Even the moles seem to be enjoying the season!”   

This past spring Tony and  I had a seed exchange. Last year we’d talked about our gardens (he’d downsized to a raised bed out back for beans and asparagus) and the talk had turned to sweet peas. “I always intend to plant some but it never seems to happen,” Tony told me. “No excuse this year,” I thought and last March stopped by some sweet pea seed for which Tony traded seed from his favorite beans. His sweet peas were the first to bloom in the Valley this summer, twining there by his front porch for me to enjoy as I walked by. Tony even shared a first bouquet with me: a solitary fragrant blossom plucked from his little pea patch.

The first seventeen rows of thornless blackberries (of those #%&* marion berries he’d had enough ) have been Tony’s jurisdiction since their planting. Always the first rows each fall to be pruned and tidily wrapped with Tony’s inimitable skill, each row fastidiously twisted like a woven basket, the unruly canes now stand in need of attention. For one who often walks and bikes in the Valley, those unkempt rows were a sign that something was amiss…and this morning came Ed’s sad news, a  shock, certainly, but not without premonition….

And so The Ripple is saddened to report the sobering news, the passing of a Valley patriarch, one time Berry King, friend and good neighbor. As I walk or pedal Gladys from now on, each visit  to the Valley will seem a bit more forlorn, the memories keener—of Tony in his yard, tending to his berries, pedaling his “retro” bicycle down the road to Ed’s to deliver the paper—fond recollections of a man who not only loved this Valley but through his hard work and skill made his mark upon it. The Valley will miss him.

Summer attire


Tony Broers—July 13, 1928—November 23, 2014