Left in Andover: Finding the Promised Land

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1942, at the age of 21, my mother was determined to escape her urban New York life.

“The superficial, merry-go-round life of the city is hateful to me,” she wrote. “I want to get away from it and remain close to the soil. You are holding a human destiny in your hands, by your power to accept or reject my application. This is the turning point of my life. Please do not make of it the turning aside point.”

Author’s mother Miriam planting onions at Cream Ridge, N.J. 1944

These impassioned words secured her admission to a co-operative Labor Zionist training farm in Cream Ridge, N.J., where she set out to master the skills necessary for a future working the soil in the Holy Land.

For four years she lived a glorious dream at Cream Ridge, learning agricultural skills, but also reveling in the communal life, playing her violin and guitar, singing and dancing with her comrades. A few months after arriving at the farm, she wrote home:

June 22, 1941
Dearest Mom,
This has been a very busy week for me. All week long I worked out in the fields and boy do I love it! I hoed corn, planted lima beans, fertilized tomatoes, weeded, picked beets, dusted cabbage, milked a whole pailful of milk from our best cow, and Saturday I was chief cook. Everybody told me how good the borscht was. I’m afraid of getting stuck in the kitchen, so I tried to cook my worst.

There was a great deal of excitement here when the news came in Saturday night about Germany and Russia*. We stayed up until 2 a.m. to hear the broadcasts. …

Miriam with milk cans at Cream Ridge in 1943.

I have changed my mind about the bike. Do not send it as it would be broken here. Some things I would like you to bring me are:

My book of Symphonies and Opera, the ones you got me at auction. … My set of lessons for the guitar. They are 11 orange paper bound books.  … My alligator purse – the roomy one with a long shoulder strap. My beige tailored dress with the hood – solid color all over.

If you want to bring something for the kids on the farm, what they most appreciate are Camel cigarettes or cake. We have 35 here. Love to Vicki and Daddy and to Grandpa.
Love, Micki

(*In June 1941, during World War II, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.)

My mother did not actually get to British Mandate Palestine until after WWII. By that time she had met and married my dad, who took her hiking on the Long Trail and introduced her to the visceral experience of a Vermont winter. Finally, in 1947, with my 7-month-old older sister in tow, the young family boarded ship for the Promised Land.

The Leaders on the Long Trail in 1946.

They weathered most of the next two years on kibbutz, where my pacifist father distinguished himself under fire taking care of the dairy and my mother dodged bullets weeding carrots. Due to raids on the kibbutz at the end of the British Mandate, my sister had to be evacuated along with the other kids in the children’s house. After a couple weeks, she barely recognized my mom.

Enthusiasm for communal life tempered and, expecting a second child, my parents set up housekeeping as a nuclear family atop Mount Carmel in a stone cottage constructed from the remains of a Crusaders castle. My mother wrote of that short time:

That afternoon in May, 1949, on top of beautiful but isolated Mount Carmel, I had lifted a heavy tub of laundry and gone into early labor. There was no one in the small settlement who could help a mother delivering one month ahead of time. Herb and two German neighbor women stood helplessly by as I lay in the big white bed. The birth failed to progress and, after several hours, desperation inspired me to sit up. After that, the baby was born easily. I tied off the umbilical cord myself.

Although perfectly formed, he never drew breath to cry. The fragile white skin was tinged with blue, and the faintly warm little bundle was pronounced dead by the old German doctor from Kibbutz Oren who arrived an hour after the death of my first born son. ‘Das kind ist tot,’ he said matter of factly.

The child was named Gracchus by his father and buried that night on the western hillside, under a small cairn of stones. The doctor insisted I spend a few days in a Haifa hospital, and when the attending physician asked me how I felt on the second morning, I answered, ‘Fine, and how long should I wait to start another baby?’ I think we were both taken by surprise.

Shortly thereafter, my parents returned to the United States and the comfort of their friends at the Nearing community in Winhall. They moved to their own place in Andover in 1950. A year later, my mother delivered me under medical supervision at Springfield Hospital.

She spent the rest of her life searching for the promised land. Andover was one stop along that journey.

Mom typed the story of Gracchus, my older brother, along with the following, directly into my computer when she visited me in August, 2001, no explanation offered. I did not discover it until months later.

Poster for the book ‘Almost Utopia’ features the author as a newborn with mom and sister.

God’s face was on the mountain last night

Spectacle of celestial ire,
a blinding light last seen

Four thousand years ago

High above me, the Green Mountains
were afire but not consumed

The message was clear in the sky

Humankind take heed

and mend your greedy ways; I know

A healing breath is in the great wind of morning.

Miriam Leader
August 20, 2001
Andover, Vermont

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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