Left in Andover: Correspondence with mother

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

From the late 1930s when she left home through her years as a 1950s housewife in Andover, my mother showered her mother with chatty, revelatory letters and postcards. At times, the correspondence was almost daily. Grandma saved it all.

When my parents bought Popplewood Farm in 1950, Grandma dispatched her collection to us in Vermont for safe-keeping. She included a selection of her own diaries and love letters as well.

After a detour south to Mom’s closet in Northampton, Mass., in the mid-’80s, the documents migrated north again to my house in 2012. Many of the boxes and manila folders I have already sorted. Others, I am now exploring for the first time.

A closet that needs organization.

I am skeptical that this trove, with no context, will survive the mercies of another generation. So I am archiving it chronologically into notebooks. It is an overwhelming task, mostly because I can’t resist reading each letter as I go.

This is a parallel reality to my daily pandemic group text with my two daughters, both mothers of young children. Our wide-ranging chats run the gamut from Covid psychologizing and whining, winter soup and smoothie recipes, weather reports and business idea brainstorming, to cute baby videos. This gives me a panoramic view as daughter, mother and grandmother across five generations.

Mom’s playful accounts of her coming of age and early adulthood are riveting. They reveal her as funny, warm, intelligent and fearless. I love experiencing her as an optimistic young woman with unlimited sunny horizons ahead.

In one letter dated “Fryday,” June 29, 1946, Mom chronicles a hitchhiking trip she took as a young bride with my father, an antiquarian book dealer, to the Pioneer Valley. They cram in a visit with old friends in Whately, Mass., and plenty of other adventures before heading back to the extended Nearing community on Stratton where they lived at the time:

Dear Folkses,
On Wednesday night we packed a sleeping sack and went down to attend the forum in West Townsend. The topic was Subsistence Farming.

Following the meeting about 10 PM we took to the road. Not being able to snare any rides at all we walked a few miles and then camped under a big maple tree, awoke at dawn and had very good luck, reaching Northampton, Mass, by 9 AM. I spent the next two hours in the public library facing Smith College while Herbie went book collecting. He managed to track down some good ones for which he gave $13 in all.

Miriam and Herb Leader in Jamaica, Vt., in 1946.

The day was a schorcher but we didn’t mind. Got to the Cooney farm where our friends are staying at 1 PM and had a good reunion with them. They are at loose ends and we are trying to persuade them to join us in Jamaica.

Oh yes, they have a swimming hole in the pasture there — I went swimming in my birthday suit for the first time (that I can remember). It was a wonderful feeling. Shirley and the children went with me while the men took their turn later.

We parted company with them at 5 PM and reached Brattleboro by dusk. We couldn’t get a ride after that though so we camped in the public park on the platform of a band shell. It was bugless and we slept like logs. Had phenomenal luck in the morning and reached home by 8 AM not walking a step.

This morning we weeded in our garden and then lunch. A tremendous green salad from the garden, homemade cottage cheese and sour cream et cetera I won’t bore you with the delicious details.

Mummy – we are sending you a subscription to Scott Nearing’s “World Events” for your belated birthday present. And Daddy you will be getting a package of 25% guesswhattems, for your birthday.

We will wait for prices to go down on the pressure cooker in the meantime we can use Nathalie’s. i am glad to hear of your beautiful littuces and cabbages i am having a big crop of red and white icicle radishes, lettuce, collards, so far that’s all.

i must be sleepy from the trip pliz excusipate crazy like typing. lots of luff and stuff. Miriam and Herbie p.s. herb received book orders worth 30 $$$ so far this week that’s a record!!

The letter must have left my upwardly mobile suburban New York grandmother shaking her head. But, like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, Mom drops several names to follow up on, any of which make a great spin off story. Who were the Cooneys? What of Nathalie?

Sorting through Mom’s letters.

Blanche Cooney was the sister of Mom’s friend from her Labor Zionist training farm days in Creamridge, N.J. Blanche and her husband Jim moved to Whately, Mass., in the 1940s after they suspended publication of their pacifist literary quarterly The Phoenix.

The Cooneys were first in the United States to publish the banned stories of Henry Miller, as well as selected diaries of Anais Nin.  My family used to visit them on Sundays at their beautiful hilltop farm in West Whately in the 1960s. Their property is now the site of the MacLeish Field Station dedicated to reviving the American chestnut.

As for Nathalie of pressure cooker fame, she was the better half of Harold Field. The Fields relinquished a thriving Philadelphia tire business during WWII rather than profit from the war machine. They removed to the remote Stratton woods, nearby but independent of the Nearings, to raise their three young children. Harold was a born tinkerer who felt that small scale handcraft (pottery, weaving, woodworking etc.) was the antidote to the ills of modern life.

My newlywed parents were camping on their property at the time Mom wrote her letter home. They never did purchase one of the Fields’ 2-acre lots at Beldo Miljah, as the place was dubbed, offered for sale to friends to farm cooperatively. The property is now preferred real estate not far from the Stratton base lodge.

All this is vapor now. But the fragrance from Mom’s old letters home is as intoxicating as the balsam fir separating the multi-million dollar ski mansions that now dot the mountain. For me, not inhaling is out of the question.

 Next week: I get to know my grandmother through her diaries.

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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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