Left in Andover: Keys to the past, and the future

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Last summer, relatives who were about to purchase Popplewood requested I play the role of “inspector” during the final walk-through of the premises before the sale was finalized.

Never having bought or sold a house myself, I had to ask for clarification as to the nature of my duties. The answer came back, “You know, just follow the real estate agent around and check to make sure everything that is supposed to be there, is there.”

The breezeway, taken by fire, was filled with books in the 1970s.

The next morning found me roaming around the empty house with the agent, fulfilling my official capacity while simultaneously enjoying my own private memory palace. I even treated myself to a tour of the barn and breezeway, both now gone, destroyed in a terrible fire in the late 1990s.

But checking on the existence of a washer and dryer in the basement was more germane to my present duty. With a measure of ambivalence, I marked them “present.” My own last tango with laundry at Popplewood was in the 1970s running a wringer washer set up outside in the grass.

Experiencing my childhood home as a neutral empty space clarified for me what a strong influence my maternal grandmother Frieda had exerted over our daily lives so long ago by giving us most of her household furnishings when she closed up her house in New York and retired to Florida.

Frieda as a young woman around 1920, Cincinnati, Ohio.

But her real gift, for me, a child archaeologist, were six steamer trunks stuffed with an extensive collection of random personal “stuff,” which she luckily did not edit before sending up to Vermont.

From a young age, I appropriated these trunks, relegated to the narrow alleys under the eaves at Popplewood and of no immediate interest to my parents.

As my own personal hunting ground, I discovered a wild assortment of outdated garter belts, bolts of silk, diplomas, cocktail dresses, work documents and exotic telegrams. Faded picture postcards, high school yearbooks and photos of Mom smiling happily with old boyfriends rounded out this stockpile of treasures connecting me directly to a whole outside world, one which I intended to explore as soon as possible.

I pause in front of a short wooden door on the knee wall of an upstairs bedroom, eyeing its diminutive knob. The agent invites me to peek inside:  Flashback:

Summer rain plunges down, beating the roof. I am only inches below, here under the narrow eaves, dodging the rows of sharp little nails that jab at me through the exposed lath. I creep on hands and knees, flashlight in hand. Fumbling with the rusty latches of Grandma’s trunk, I inhale the sweet scent of mothballs, trace the folds of a precisely ironed gold lame dress, dry rotted threads crumbling at my touch…

Grandmother Frieda, early 1950s, south porch, Popplewood, Andover.

In 1908, at age 13, Frieda emigrated from Europe to Cincinnati, Ohio, with her parents and six siblings. Although her dad, a tanner, was thwarted in his business aspirations when his partner stole a secret formula, the next generation flourished, becoming successful shopkeepers, teachers and social workers.

Determined to raise herself upward both socially and economically, Frieda, the youngest girl, mastered English quickly. Married with child by her early 20s, she toted my young mother along with her to night school.

By the 1930s, college degrees in hand, Frieda had reinvented herself as dean of her own private college preparatory school in the exclusive New York suburb of New Rochelle. When my grandfather Sam Bergman lost his job as a skilled union lithographer during the Great Depression, his indomitable wife singlehandedly supported the family.

My mom, therefore, grew up in a very comfortable, aspirational household with a brand new Estey baby grand piano in the living room, music lessons and summers at camp in the country.

Frieda’s new school building, 1938, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Whereas Sam could hide out in his basement workshop and work on his inventions, Mom and her younger sister were left upstairs with Frieda, bearing the brunt, along with her college prep students, of her relentless ambition for them.

Naturally, Mom dropped out of college. However, her early musical advantages provided the basis for a lifelong love affair with the violin.

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, owning a piano, aside from the musical and social potential it offered, was a major marker of American social mobility and the emergent middle class. Even during my childhood, a piano was at minimum a signifier of cultural aspiration, of the opportunities a family intended to afford its young.

Several years following the sudden death in 1950 of my grandfather by the side of Taylor Hill Road in Jamaica while visiting my downwardly mobile mother, my widowed grandmother sent her piano north to us in Andover.

This particular embodiment of upward mobility Mom was more than happy to accept. Was it worth the floor space in our living room over the next 30 years? I dare not judge. My sister and I took lessons at various times, though neither of us attained much proficiency.

The Leader sisters at Frieda’s piano at Popplewood in 1959.

When Popplewood was sold out of the family in 1988, I certainly was not in a position to host the displaced instrument. It would have taken up a good third of my cabin’s floor space, even if it could have fit through the door.

As I performed that ritual of inspection last summer, savoring the strangely empty living room at Popplewood, I could hear a faint tinkling of piano keys.

A lifetime ago, Dad advised me, “Stay in one place long enough and all things will come to you.” This is to include, it turns out, a renewed relationship with Frieda’s piano, for it never left the family.

Luckily, the generations succeeding mine appear rich in musical talent. I am so fortunate to still be around to watch the show.

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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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