Left in Andover: Aunt Vivian finally finds a place at Popplewood Farm

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

My idealistic grandparents helped buy our farm in Andover under the delusion that my aunt Vivian, Mom’s kid sister by 12 years, would be able to build her own little cottage on the property. This never came to pass, but Vivian did come to visit several times a year.

Unfortunately, Dad could barely tolerate her and other assorted relatives who dropped in to try out farm life. One teenage cousin spent whole afternoons ironing her blouses rather than help weed the garden. Dad fumed over our electric bill.

Vivian, highly allergic to cats, of which we always had a selection, usually had had enough of us after each of her long weekends at Popplewood. Try as we might, we never aired out the house quite enough in anticipation of her arrival.

Aunt Vivian and Miriam on Vivian’s wedding day.

My grandmother achieved at best a detente with Dad over dominion of the kitchen. She wasted the limited hot water coming out of the copper tank behind the wood cook stove. She didn’t put the correct size lids on the cooking pots: Pleasing my father was a hopeless task.

Nevertheless, Grandma bailed us out again and again. After Dad’s health crisis in 1956, we stayed at her house in Florida for two winters. And when Aunt Vivian was finally to be married in 1960, Grandma was excited to have the family together to celebrate this grand life cycle event.

The date and time were set, Feb. 20, in New York City. For us in Andover, it was the dead of winter, demanding constant vigilance to keep the pipes, not to mention the livestock water, from freezing.

Nevertheless, Grandma campaigned vigorously for us to attend, sending this tempting postcard to Mom on Jan. 9:

“Dear Miriam, I was so glad to hear from you now that you know the ‘Big News.’ I want you to make plans to come. It will be a family affair with a few intimate friends. I like Seth and I believe Vivian is going to be very happy with him! He is young (32), tall and handsome, educated and capable etc. I have little time to write. We had to skip the formal invitations – so this is it!

Here I am in 1959, feeding the pot belly stove at Popplewood.

Wedding to take place Sat. night Feb 20 at 8 o’clock, 900 Grand Concourse. I plan to arrive on Sat. morning and will stay at The Concourse Hotel. If Herbert can come- fine- anyway bring the children. You can all stay with me. I have reserved a suite at the Hotel. Stay at my expense. Vivian wants you to be a matron of honor…I will send you a check for $50.00 at the end of this week for your expenses. Buy a dress if you need it. Same for children. Love.”

A back and forth ensued, during which Grandma per usual did not prevail. In a major disappointment for me, we kids stayed home with Dad to keep the home fires burning.

I remember sitting by the pot belly stove in our living room feeling Mom’s absence. Above the stove was a round hole in the ceiling fitted with an open grille. Both warm air and household sounds rose through it to my bedroom directly above. Under ordinary circumstances, I wakened to the splish splash of Mom taking her morning sponge bath by the stove.

I have felt her presence anew every morning since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. Early this March, my husband and I turned off our electric hot water heater to conserve on utility bills.

Our Waterford Stanley cookstove heating water.

Luckily, we run our beloved wood cook stove daily October to May, so this presents no hardship. Channeling Mom, I now enjoy a delightful sponge bath every morning. Even though we let the fire go out, my gigantic stock pot of water remains hot overnight atop our Waterford Stanley wood cookstove.

Grandma’s $50 did not last long at our house. Mom purchased an electric blanket, among other things, with the funds. With what remained, she boarded the bus solo in Chester for the Port Authority bus terminal.

Grandma surprised her Cinderella like with an elegant rose tint voile skirted dress and matching custom fabric covered size 11 heels. For years afterwards, I clomped around in them playing wedding.

Ironically, the getup outlasted the marriage, which endured less than 10 years. Vivian lived the rest of her life alone in a co-op apartment in Morningside Heights, enjoying the cultural delights of her chosen city, painting, hiking upstate, biking, raising pet turtles and writing poetry.

Here I am, standing in 1983, with Vivian, planting the blueberry bush.

Spring 1983, Vivian came up for a women’s family weekend at my cabin, one of her more successful visits. She brought me a blueberry bush as an early birthday gift, which we planted together. In 2014 when she died, we scattered her cremains in the Andover woods nearby.

Now, 37 springs later, our blueberry bush soldiers on, fat buds bursting. Come late August, I will thank Vivian once again for the jumbo late season berries. They taste best right off the bush shared with grandchildren.

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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. Dan O'Connell says:

    Susan Leader also brought ceramic arts to Dick Bliss’s East Hill School, down the road, where my daughter Susan learned to be independent & successful, & I was privileged to teach. Family can be a challenge.