Left in Andover: Waters in the heart

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A hundred feet into the woods off my front porch is a shallow well hand dug in the 1950s by a hermit who lived in the cabin which is now my pottery studio. We dubbed it Hammy’s Well after our daughter’s hamster met its demise there many years ago.

The amount of water in it varies wildly, reflecting the level of ground water. Although I hesitate to drink from it, the well is a lifesaver whenever our power goes out. Two winters ago when we had no electricity for an extended time period, we lugged in countless buckets of water for washing, and to flush the toilet.

Hammy’s Well full from recent rains.

That seemed easier than trekking across the meadow to use our deluxe outhouse, vestige of years of cabin life. It is a roomy two-seater built by my sister-in-law, a former union carpenter in NYC.

But for most of the time before we got running water, we had a three-sided minimalist outhouse wide open to the elements. It was a pleasure to use on a fire-fly studded summer night, but I also recall hauling my first baby outside with me at night in a blizzard.

For many years, my husband had considered scooping out the muck and resetting the stones in Hammy’s Well. Finally, early October 2012, he set to it. It had been a very dry summer and the well was empty. It was the perfect busy work for him while we awaited the imminent arrival of our first grandchild over in Ithaca, N.Y.

Worried out of my mind over our daughter’s home-birth plan, I hovered by the house phone. It rang! But it was my 92-year-old mother’s caregiver calling to say Mom was having a heart attack.

Specker Family Band photo shoot at Hammy’s Well in 2013.

Leaving John home to work on his well project, I sped down to Northampton, Mass., to be with my mother. She had been on – and then off – hospice, living in her own house with helpers. The woman on duty had no choice but to call an ambulance, sending Mom on one final painful, expensive and unnecessary trip to the hospital.

The ensuing 24 hours were a whirlwind. News arrived that our daughter’s home water tub birth had gone off without a hitch. Almost simultaneously Mom was put on, then taken off, a ventilator. My siblings and I gathered at her bedside.

To my disappointment, Mom appeared unmoved at the news that she had become a great grandmother. Perhaps she felt a grudging transference between her breath and that of the new little mermaid.

Mom was a water spirit herself. She adored water in all its forms, the ocean, swimming, her daily bath. She also identified deeply with her biblical namesake Miriam, whose miraculous “Miriam’s Well” supplied the Israelites with water as they wandered the desert for 40 years. In 1996 my mother wrote:

“When my uncle who is a rabbi drew up my name from the Bible, Mother was delighted and I, the baby, kicked up my heels. I am still only 77 and I love to dance, and when I dance I think of Miriam: the sister of Moses and Aaron, a Prophetess who sang with joy and exaltation as the waves parted … She is my muse, the one who dances in my heart. When the tide draws me down and I walk barefoot in the sand my footprints fit into hers and disappear…The waves dance, and the voice of the sea carries me away to an ancient land.”

Miriam Leader, center with her mandolin, in the Pikes Falls Community, 1950. Photo Rebecca Lepkoff.

In 1950, my mother started up her dream demonstration folk and square dance troupe with close friends drawn to the Winhall-Jamaica area by the charisma of Scott and Helen Nearing. Although Scott was hard core political, Helen was a fun-loving, classically trained violinist. Mom found common ground with her playing violin and mandolin for community sing-alongs and dances.

Shelling peas together, swimming at Pikes Falls, vegetarian potlucks and a never-ending round of square dances at a neighborhood community center were highlights of this enclave’s social life.

Although the Nearings promoted a simple, self-sufficient life, it was not for lack of money. Scott came from a wealthy Pennsylvania coal mining dynasty and Helen inherited the estate of an ex-lover who died in a plane crash. But no one worked harder, was more generous or galvanizing for the modern back-to-the-land movement.

Some of the other families who sought to emulate their ideal lifestyle barely scraped by. Unable to subsist on dreams alone, they mostly dispersed when the Nearings moved to Maine. Mom, for one, was never able to replicate this near utopian period of her life.

Miriam Leader, 1950, at the Nearing community. Photo Rebecca Lepkoff

The minute I got home to Andover after our granddaughter’s birth and my mother’s synchronous death, John was adamant I follow him into the woods to admire his newly refurbished well, even before I went into the house. He was jubilant it had already begun to fill.

The previous day, as part of Mom’s funeral proceedings, I had unexpectedly been invited to participate in the Jewish rite of washing the body.

Afterward, it is customary for the volunteers of the Chevra Kadisha burial society to immerse in a mikveh or ritual bath. However, the women in Mom’s case ran out of time and skipped that part of the process. If only symbolically, the rising Vermont groundwater in Hammy’s Well would have to serve that purpose for me.

Next week: More about Mom’s death.

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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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