I had no idea that when I opened Fiddlehead Farm in 2007 with my partner that I was sharing in a legacy. It was probably the furthest thing from my mind.
I never knew the man everybody still refers to as Farmer Green. He had been gone for close to 30 years by then, but I did know his successor, Donnie Mills.
At first it was just in passing, a casual acquaintance from his years running Hillside Farm. Donnie was a protégé of Farmer Green’s and he continued to farm much of the same property for many years while he ran his farm stand business in North Tisbury. Years later, when Fiddlehead was getting off the ground in the same location, we became friends. We saw each other nearly every day and we often had impromptu chats while I took a break, happy to lean on the handle of a shovel for a while. We certainly had a lot of laughs.
Donnie used to think of himself as something of a curmudgeon and I wasn’t about to argue the point with him, but somewhere along the way I figured out that it was just a ruse — more of a cover-up to disguise his natural tendency towards shyness. We shared many stories about our experiences growing things, battling the whims and vicissitudes of weather, late frosts, early frosts, garden pests and quirky customers. Especially the customer part. He was always a delightful presence in my life and I looked forward to seeing him every day more than he probably knew.
During these last several years as he fought his battle with cancer, that, too, became part of our conversation, but remarkably, only in passing. Donnie didn’t like to talk too much about it and I didn’t want to intrude. When he rallied, we all delighted in the news, and when things got bad he mostly kept it to himself. Last spring when I returned to the Island after nearly a six-month absence I found him out back behind the store replacing some glazing in the greenhouse. It was part of his annual spring ritual and even nearly a year spent in chemotherapy wasn’t going to deter him. It was great to see him again. He was smiling from ear to ear and within a day or two we fell back into our daily routine.
I generally hate euphemisms and I think Donnie would agree with me on this. Euphemisms don’t really say much about what really is going on and they’re mostly about making everybody feel better so they can accept that which is so deeply hard to accept. Not that there is anything wrong with feeling better, mind you, but I particularly hate that oft-used, standard obituary line about people dying peacefully surrounded by friends and family. When I think of Donnie Mills I’ll think instead about the courage and dignity he displayed while he came to grips with what he had been dealt. I’ll miss seeing him wave to me each morning when he went for his morning newspaper, knowing I’d see him later on during the day. He was a deeply private person but I was fortunate that there were times when we could steal a few minutes from the day and share each other’s company. Even as his own situation was becoming more dire he would continue to make his way from his house over to the farm stand, slowly, with difficulty and clearly in great pain. With his enormous effort we were able to continue on as we had before as if nothing else really mattered. That was just Donnie’s way.