Left in Andover: The canopy over his head

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The box containing Dad’s cremated remains sat under the eaves at Popplewood for two whole years before we figured out what to do with them

His instructions to “dump me on the compost pile” seemed crude if not illegal. But Dad’s opposition to the funeral industry left few other options.

Finally, on Aug. 31, 1990, two years after his death, Mom, my two siblings and I gather  with the box in a semicircle at the foot of the “Big Rock” in our wood lot in Andover.

Just visible through the trees, we study the home of our friend the “Woodlot Lady” as we affectionately refer to her. Almost every day, for decades she had passed by our farm a mile up the road at 7:20 a.m. on her way to work in Springfield. If Dad was out by the side of Weston-Andover Road, she stopped for him, and he could count on a lovely day in town at the library, schlepping the grocery stores for bargains, even a noon-time meal at the senior center, then home again by 5:30. In his later years he had no vehicle of his own, having given up driving for medical, as well as financial and philosophical reasons.

An affinity for libraries and rocks

Long ago, the FBI recorded Dad’s life-long affinity for libraries, noting in its 1952 files that “…Subject drove into Springfield early in the morning and remained almost every day in the Public Library from early morning until the time he went to work at 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon shift at the Slack Company.”

The deed for the 60-acre woodlot, which is still in the family. The land was sold off cheaply after being logged.

Besides his bibliophilia, Dad loved rocks.

Around that same era he set out poaching the flat ones from our stone walls to build a fireplace at Popplewood. He laid the foundation up to first floor level before running out of steam. Defying all masonry standards, even the slip-form style popularized by the Nearings, he slapped together the rest of it, layering slices of waste red slate with cement which oozed out like mayo, frozen in motion.

Regardless of looks, it was the best fireplace ever, the center of our family life. The cavernous firebox was deep enough to accommodate stumps and whole cardboard boxes, perfect for baking potatoes and popping corn. It both threw heat and stole it from the rest of the house. A card table set up in front of its wide mouth was the site of a years long inter-generational anagrams tournament that Dad always won.

July 7, 1970, Dad penned this lonely letter from Popplewood to my mother, who was in Massachusetts working a summer job:

“Dear M, I fell asleep last night by the fireplace, awoke at 3. There was the most gorgeous moon and sky, so I went for a walk to the woodlot. If you’d have been here, I’d have urged you to get up and come – and it would have been perfect…”

So much remains

Twenty years and one month later, it is August 1990. With the box labeled “Herbert Joseph Leader, cremated remains” in hand, we stand quietly, finally ready to release some ineffable part of our father, and Mom of her life-partner. He had been the sun in our solar system. Warm, loving, nurturing, bursting with ideas both visionary and practical.

Simultaneously, he could be demanding, bossy and angry. The last two years on our own without him had offered all of us intoxicating opportunities to make our own choices, free of his judgment. Years ago, I had suggested to him he just pretend to be dead, then sit back and enjoy watching the show of what we would do without him. My suggestion went over his head.

Now he had finally gone and done it. The four of us hold hands, light candles and sing an improvised blessing. We finally venture to open the box and pour powder and tiny chunks of bone into a homemade pottery cookie jar.

The beech tree carved with ceremonial image and lettering at the Andover woodlot.

Mom reads three or four poems about Dad and his bargain shopping exploits, probably too humorous for the occasion, then, into the cookie jar, we tuck the poems, half an almond Hershey bar — Dad’s weakness — along with some over-priced “Herb” crackers from a health food store, gifts for his journey through the primeval muck and leaf mold of the Vermont woods. The rest of the crackers and bar we share in communion. A few handfuls of dirt laid gently on top, one last song … so little — yet so much — of my father remains.

We eye the vigorous, smooth-skinned beech towering above, and resolve to scratch an epitaph into its bark. In a nod to tradition, it seems wise to wait the requisite year before writing anything, for the earth to seal, for candle drippings on the “Big Rock” to erode, lest someone chance too soon upon the site.

We wend our way home beneath the canopy of the 60-acre woodlot Dad bought in 1951 for $20 to $30 an acre, a deal he could not resist but Mom had never approved. I had been born just the week before, and she would rather have paid the obstetrician — a debt, I believe, still unpaid. Anyhow, he had always meant to do something here but, aside from a few loads of firewood hauled now and then, never had. It was not such a bad price for a burial plot.

We never told our dear friend the “Woodlot Lady” about her new neighbor. But we always wondered whether Dad continued to make trips into town with her to pass the time. Keep an eye out, if you would, for the studious looking geezer with the salt and pepper beard and giant Hershey bar. He’ll be reading the newspapers in the periodical room.

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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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  1. John Holme says:

    I’ve been enjoying your stories Susan. This one is the best.

  2. David Howald says:

    Love your stories Susan.
    I enjoy hearing of Andover’s past.
    Keep them coming