Saturday, March 14, 2015

Remembering Farmer Jim, esquire

Last August I received one of the hardest writing assignments of my short and rather undistinguished career. 

In May, my friend Jim was diagnosed with acute myeloid Leukemia. By August, it seemed he was having more bad days than good. His wife, Kristi, asked me if I could write the obit when the time came. 

"Of course." I told her. Because ... because, of course.

Then I promptly went about life. And Jim and Kristi went about their lives, though now with more intention. They went to more movies, spent long hours together binge-watching TV, visited New York City and saw shows and went sailing in Annapolis. 

"You should just write it now so it's ready when the time comes," people told me. But I couldn't. Because ... because, how?


(Here's a video we put together to celebrate Jim's birthday in February)

Jim and Kristi were among my first friends in York. In fact, I moved to York largely because it would give me the opportunity to live on their beautiful farm. 

Kristi is this sparking bolt of lightening, all energy and ideas and action. She's forever erecting and dismantling and planning and talking and laughing. And Jim's the clearing clouds after the storm, the calm the serenity the reflection. I don't ever think I've met a more balanced pair.

When describing my unique landlords to friends, I always characterized Jim as Farmer Hoggett from "Babe." That strong, steady, knowing voice in the midst of all the chaos. And on the farm, there's always chaos. Horses at your back door, turkeys chasing cars, dogs digging for varmints.

He handled all of it in step, with the eye of a poet. As I was scrolling through his Facebook page a while back, I found this:
"Last night, under a clear sky and a full harvest moon, our Iberia, Duchess of Blue Hound and milk cow extraordinaire, passed away suddenly, joining the other radiant stars and leaving us with glorious memories and a two-week old calf. Today was sadness and triumph, as Bibby the calf learned to drink from a bottle. Now to bed."
Have you ever read a nicer tribute to a cow?

Anyone who's been to Blue Hound can't help but come back. There's a magic to the place, created in no small part by Kristi's kinetic vision and Jim's graciousness. All are welcome, all are family. Just be kind to our animals and the land. 

Farmer Jim helps the girls
get a cow-back ride on Iberia.
Anytime I visited and Jim was around I'd be greeted with a huge smile and those sparkling blue eyes. Life was always good, according to Jim. Even when knee deep in mud with a sick cow, a wayward dog, or a fox sneaking in the chicken coop. 

He never failed to point out the great wealth that surrounded us if we just paused for a second.

Months ago while on the farm, I was down by the pond picking flowers for wedding bouquets. The night was serene, the sun just starting to set. Jim, who was often tired by then, wandered down the hill from the house. "Look between those bushes," he told me, seemingly out of nowhere. So I did, just in time to see a flock of docks landing on the water. The only sound you could hear was the whisper of their wings and the splash of the water. 

It was such a small, perfect moment. A gift.

I got a call Wednesday morning, Jim was gone. I knew even before I picked up the phone I think. Just that strange feeling you get. 

I guess you can't procrastinate forever. 

Here's what I wrote about Jim. It doesn't feel enough. Doesn't convey how highly I regard him and how much we'll all miss him. But I'm guessing no matter what I wrote, Jim would be encouraging. That's just the sort of person he was.

Here goes:

James “Jim” Frederick Maher died peacefully in the arms of his beloved wife, Kristi, at their home in Lewisberry on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

While, last year’s leukemia diagnosis wasn’t the best news, true to his optimism, sense of humor and unyielding pragmatism, Jim committed to living every dang day the best he could, right up to very the end. 

The product of a North-South marriage (his father, John Sloat Fassett Maher hailed from upstate New York while his mother, Eleanor Poindexter Maher was from Mississippi), Jim was born Feb. 2, 1949 in Hartford, Conn. His older brother Buck still hasn’t forgiven Jim for supplanting him as the baby of the family, though Jim would later get a taste of his own medicine when their little brother Tom arrived.

His childhood was split between Hartford, Mississippi and Tennessee, where he attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. 

Jim had a propensity for unique hobbies, which started early in life when he collected meat-eating plants as a kid. Throughout his life he was an actor, bathtub vintner, radio announcer, sailor, historian, poet, fisherman, cheese maker, farmer and yogi. 

A reader and a romantic, Jim’s love for J.R.R. Tolkien took him to Middle Earth itself (or at least on location in New Zealand where the movies were filmed). This trip was a bit more satisfying than his other literature-inspired adventure – a train ride across Europe on the Orient Express, which proved far more rustic and rather less elegant and mysterious than he’d envisioned.

While attending Duke University, he ran the college radio station, where he was known for playing good music (not that Top 40 stuff) and for creating a series of fake ads for Mr. Fix-It, a humble handyman who could tackle anything from open-heart surgery to disarming a nuclear bomb. 

His stage career peaked in college when he played Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” It was widely rumored that he got the part because of his ability to belch on cue. Later in life he took on the roles of Santa Claus and William Penn to entertain and educate children.

Jim didn’t have much money while attending law school at Temple University, so he had to be creative with gift giving. He once gave his best friend Chris the deed to the Island of Manhattan as a birthday present. Said he got it off an old Indian, whom he figured had pretty good claims to the land; Chris’s wife, Stefani, got the deed for Western Europe. His friends  and family have always appreciated his generosity with laughter. 

Through his career, Jim practiced law in New York City, Wilmington, Del. And Harrisburg, Pa. 

It was in Delaware that he met and married Kristi, who, after seeing Jim run, confessed to have taken up jogging in order to land a date with him. Her persistence paid off (though she hung up her jogging shoes) and the couple wed in New Castle in 1991. This wasn’t the last time Jim found himself roped into one of Kristi’s schemes; her next big idea was moving to Pennsylvania to buy a 72-acre farm. Of course, Jim was happy to follow along, becoming one of those rare breeds of lawyer-farmers you never hear about. His sister Julie says he never wanted a routine sort of life anyway.

In 2013 he retired from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, trading in his suit and trademark bow ties for boots and a cowboy hat. At Blue Hound Farm he birthed calves and kids (goat kids, that is), tucked in turkeys, milked, mowed, mucked, and on occasion, corralled a wayward pig or two. 

There are numerous adjectives that apply to Jim – kind, patient, gracious, sweet, wise and sharp-witted are among them. Maybe the best description for him is gentleman, for he was one in ever sense of the word.

He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Kristi Dimond Maher; sister, Julianne Maher of Pittsburgh; brothers Michael Maher and his wife, Beatrice, of Holland, Mich.; Poindexter “Buck” Maher of New Zealand; and Oren “Thomas” Maher of Knoxville, Tenn.; uncle Theodore Davis of Virginia Beach, Va.; numerous nieces and nephews including Susan (his long-time roller coaster buddy) and Martin Maher of Pittsburgh; and the charter members of Birdy West: Chris, Scott and Warren. 

“It is a great mistake not to stop and enjoy the spring that surrounds us ever so briefly,” Jim wrote last April. He always had a way with words. He appreciated the quiet things – the warm sun on his face, a flock of ducks landing on the pond at dusk and a walk down the lane with his dogs – and he never failed to remind others to pause and admire the wonderful world around them. It is some comfort, then, that each night when we pause to look up at the twinkling stars, we’ll see Jim’s smiling eyes shining back down on us.

Jim donated his body to Hershey Medical Center. Plans for a life celebration are pending. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to www.pawoundedwarriors.org.

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