Left in Andover: Grandma Freda’s determined life

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

After Mom died in 2012, I inherited my maternal grandmother Freda Freund Bergman’s intimate diary in a box of mementos I brought back to Vermont.

The fraying, soft-leather five-year journal holds Grandma’s unexpurgated entries from when she and the 20th century were both in their 40s. I doubt Mom ever took a look at it; her survival mechanism was looking to the future. Grandma takes pains to explain people and places as she writes. She must have been writing for me, some 80 years later.

Freda and family still living in Poland. Freda, who was 10 at the time, is in the lower left-hand corner.

But reading about my grandfather Sam’s affair and his manic mood swings, both of which Grandma remained ever hopeful he would overcome, was too much for me. I tossed the diary behind I forgot-which-bookcase.

This winter, I have been inspired to take another look at Grandma and her life. The diary, which with some effort I managed to retrieve, is a gift.

Freda waxes poetic upon her happy childhood in her native Poland, near the Lithuanian border:

Suwalki is a legend now, existing only in my mind. I loved the village central park, the lovely
trees and benches. I loved the secret walking paths, the concert band. Happy children frolicked by the rivers edge, played hide and seek, wove garlands of blue corn flowers, then like fairies holding hands dance in circles.

But then the young girl was swept up by history. In 1908, when she was 10, Freda’s father left for America with her older brothers, to shield them from certain death as conscripts in the czar’s army. For three long years Freda waited in Suwalki with her mother and the rest of the family, until 1911, when they also emigrated.

Susan’s mother Miriam, left, with her father Sam in Cincinnati in 1921.

Mom framed her mother as annoyingly ambitious. But this was a woman who, having arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, at age 13 speaking no English, did not stop to breathe until achieving a graduate level education and independence as the doyenne of a college preparatory school in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Even then, Grandma kept just one step ahead of financial disaster throughout the Depression and the war years. Sam, my grandfather, was a talented lithographer and tinkerer who was without dependable work for much of that time. Jan. 19, 1943, she notes:

Sam is home this week. He has been laid off to make room for another Union man to replace him for four weeks.

Freda self-diagnosed as suffering from Weltschmerz, “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” In other words, afflicted by high expectations, she was perpetually dissatisfied.

I would have enjoyed knowing Grandma as a peer. No matter how hard she worked all week, her weekends were for fun. Jan. 11, 1942, she complains that bringing Mom’s kid sister to choir practice “kills my Sunday afternoon.” Of course it was her own ambitious agenda that drove the schedule.

Susan, left, with Grandma Freda at Popplewood in 1965.

Grandma, I have also discovered, loved to dish. “Everyone has their problems” is her mantra. Her idea of a good time was going into the city to eat Chinese and catch a movie with friends. I wish I could have joined them as they critiqued everything mercilessly on the way home.

Saturday, Jan. 24, 1942, Freda writes:

 I bought a fur coat for myself but Sam won’t let me keep it. He said we can’t afford it.

That Sunday:

Spent a busy and miserable day at home cleaning up and washing. I caught a cold and have been sneezing the entire evening. I can’t decide about the coat.

Then Monday:

Last week of school, completing term. Prospects, none. Civic League meeting today. Did not go because I was in a bad mood. Canceled purchase of coat. I wanted it very badly and I should have loved it immensely but somehow it seems so unimportant. After all, we are at war.

Tensions ran high in the Bergman household. My grandfather, who had served in World War I, was working two jobs to keep afloat. He failed to come home after his night shift. By March 1, 1943, Grandma had had enough:

I told Sam I wish a separation. He, I believe, was a little overwhelmed, then told me I had no grounds to base my claim.

Sam Bergman’s death was noted in the Brattleboro Reformer.

March 2nd:

He even tried to kiss me today. So far I have opposed his approaches because my inner feelings are still revolting against all the horrid things said and done to spite me. I nearly broke down with the ‘nerves’ but I went for a walk with Irene with whom I talked freely and discussed my problems. I regret it for I don’t think she can grasp the situation.

By Friday that week, Freda is able to report that:

Peace is at hand. Our feelings are no longer rebellious. I go about my work without resentment. Sam seems almost friendly. How long this lasts is hard to tell…

By the following week, Freda’s indomitable spirit reasserts itself.

Diary I feel like a convalescent who has recovered from a recent illness. It is a good feeling of well being and contentment. Today I am stronger in my conviction that happiness to be had must be cultivated and nurtured like a plant.

Ever herself, she adds this caveat:

Spending Sunday at home is supposed to be my duty as a good wife and mother. After several attempts, I feel terribly bored.

And so it went for my grandparents. Through it all, Grandma was a rock of stability. She nursed her own family, her aging father, sick in-laws and attended the deathbed of her mother-in-law, recording it all.

Freda, center, with the man who would become her second husband, right, and his family Plymouth in 1953.

In 1950, when my grandfather died suddenly at age 56 while visiting my parents in Jamaica, Freda’s life took an unexpected turn. She sold her home in New York and, for a stint, taught at a one-room school in Whitingham. But the antisemitism and low pay were more than she could take.

Then, after Mom and Dad moved to Popplewood, Grandma chased temporary positions to be near them in Weston and Andover, barely missing both. She would play an outsized role in my family’s fortunes during the upcoming years. Cheerleader, banker, babysitter, shopper-in-chief, her ever generous presence leavened Mom’s years as an isolated country housewife in Andover.

In 1954, Grandma married a local man, a greeter at the Adna Brown Hotel in Springfield where she sometimes stayed. The two subsequently removed to Florida to live out their dream lives in paradise.

And lest I forget to mention: Freda did eventually complete the purchase of that fur coat back in 1942, first husband be damned.

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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. David Carey says:

    On Google maps you can get a lovely view of the central park in Suwalki, Poland. Enjoy a ‘drive’ around the park and you can also view several colourful autumnal photos from within the park, called Park of the Constitution of 3 May, 1791