Left in Andover: The short, dynamic life of Frieda

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1907, my darkly handsome grandfather Isaac sought shelter from conscription officers of the czar’s army at the home of an acquaintance in the shtetl of Zelva, Poland. He emerged from hiding shortly thereafter, dowry and eldest daughter of the household in hand, destination: America.

The enterprising Frieda was a real catch. Crowned potato peeling champion of Zelva as a teenager, there was no challenge too great for her.

Frieda Leader, who was the potato peeling champion of Zelva, was also brilliant with a butcher knife.

Giving of herself unstintingly for the remaining 20 years of her short life, she was the perfect match for the equally industrious Isaac. In Bennington, where they arrived in 1908, the two ran a successful butcher shop and rooming house. My father was their youngest child and only son.

According to the custom of the day, Dad was born at home. It was 1917. His birth was witnessed surreptitiously by his oldest sister, my aunt Pauline Leader. Pauline wrote about it in her 1931 book And No Birds Sing:

“Strange sounds were coming from the other room. I lay and listened. My sisters, in the bed with me, were asleep. I crept to the door. It was open a crack, and peeping through, I saw my mother, naked except for a short shirt, writhing on the floor … there seemed to be a lot of women. They grouped themselves more closely around my mother and seemed to be trying to get her on the bed, but she was waving them away. I began to cry softly, I could not be so brave as my mother…”

The four youngest Leader siblings in the 1920s, Bennington.

My grandmother, an every-day hero, survived all five of her home births, as well as four miscarriages. But the harsh exigencies of daily life proved fatal. In her acclaimed autobiography, Pauline painted this picture of her mother at the family’s Bennington “Cut Price Meat Market”:

“She had given all her young womanhood to it. It had made an old woman of her at thirty-five … the gesture, the magnificent gesture, with which my mother had taken a side or a forequarter from the hook and flung it on a block and dissected it. The sure thrust of her knife into the belly of a cow … The swarming intestines dropping into the pail … the warm cloud of air issuing from the newly disemboweled belly of a pig … My mother could do all these things better than a man could. What other woman in town could do such things?”

Passages from one of Aunt Pauline Leader’s books that speak of her mother.

My grandfather, pushing 50, must have asked himself the very same question as he mourned the death of his faithful helpmate.

Extended family in New York mobilized to find him a replacement wife and mother for his brood of five. Translated from the original Yiddish, one candidate with nothing to lose flaunted her wares:

“Dear Mister Leader,

Your conditions are truly a great shame. We know that many marriages have been arranged between older men and younger women. It is difficult to separate the role of love and money. Believe me, if I were in your place, I would not ask questions. But how can I speak of love when I don’t know you at all. I love your letters because they are full of feeling. Of course it is a shame that we are so far from each other … I have no patience. How can I have patience when I am already a woman of years and have not yet been married … Thank G-d I feel in good health. One thing I know, I am the same beauty I was. You should have a good wife, and I a good husband. My friend, I thank you. I greet you, and my parents and sister greet you …”

In the end, the vacancy was filled locally, as the Bennington Banner formally announced my grandfather’s marriage to his next door neighbor, Anna Levin.

In reality, this notice was just a decoy, intended to head off prurient gossip. Anna and Isaac carried on surreptitiously from the back porch of No. 149 to No. 151 until Isaac’s death in 1934.

I daresay my grandmother would have taken such neighborhood indiscretions in good humored stride. In her last years she had transformed into the mastermind and lax arbiter of morality for the Blocks, her single room occupancy rooming house down the alleyway off North Street.

Her boarders were a loose living, hard drinking, hand-to-mouth polyglot of Eastern European immigrants employed in the Bennington mills. Frieda was their den mother of sorts, mother confessor, scold and strongest advocate. She collected the rent, poked around in bureaus on the sly when necessary, broke up fights, limited but did not ban overnights by prostitutes and offered shelter to the homeless.

Even when my 41-year-old grandmother was bed-ridden at the end of her life, the vibrant humanity of the Blocks streamed down the alleyway to her bedside for advice and solace.

In A Room for the Night, aunt Pauline described her mother’s last months in 1926 as an invalid. The inimitable Garth Williams, in rare adult content drawings, provided illustration:

A formal portrait of Frieda from the 1920s.

“When my mother could no longer go up to the Blocks, our tenants came down in the evening to sit by her bedside and, like decent men and women, ask grave and anxious questions about her heart before telling her about themselves, their troubles  …

But who can understand the heart? It is not like an arm or leg which, though broken, can be set, and in time heals and can be used again. Did the heart beat fast or slow today? Was there much pain today …

My mother would reply, ‘My heart is better this evening, thank you. What did you do today? Was there enough steam coming up in the radiators? Do you need new electric bulbs? Was there soap in the sink? Were the towels changed? Did Pauline remember to turn the mattress before she put on the clean sheets..?’ ”

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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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