20 residents of Burlingtons Starr
Farm Nursing Center, half of them in
wheelchairs, have formed a ragged semi-circle
around Chris Abair a slender,
slightly built man with an impish face,
rather like a middle-aged Peter Pan.
Hands clasped before him, leaning toward
his aged audience, Abair recites his
grandfathers poetry. Although hes
had no professional training in voice or
theater, his performance is confident,
precise, from the heart.
To bring a woman
board a ship/Is sure to bring it grief,
he lilts. The seniors, most of them
awake, remain silent until he finishes
The Old Buccaneer, which
like much of his repertoire
is a morbid tale of lost love and grizzly
deeds. When Abair concludes, the group
bursts into applause.
was a good one, several murmur. A
resident with snowy hair and thick
glasses stands up, as she does after
every poem, and shakes Abairs hand.
Thank you, Father, she says
somberly. You ought to be a priest.
too late for that, jokes Abair, 49,
who has already raised a family in
presentation is suggestive of the clergy
to this elderly fan, perhaps its
his emotional oratorical style he
brushes tears from his eyes whenever he
reads The Madman of The Mines
or the religious subtext of the
poems. Or maybe its because so many
of them weave in God, sin and the
hereafter. Unabashedly sentimental, the
poems of George Albert Leddy were written
early in the 20th century, when
characters openly sobbed and invoked
their Maker, and feeling queer had
nothing to do with sexual preference.
ago, Abair who has worked for
three decades as a systems engineer at
IBM in Essex Junction decided to
make photocopies of his grandfathers
two typed, unpunctuated manuscripts,
to make sure they wouldnt be
destroyed in a fire or something,
he explains. He has spent the past two
years transcribing and self-publishing
both Leddys poems and those of his
great-aunt, Mary Laura Leddy, whose
devotional verses he sprinkles throughout
performances. To date, he has memorized
19 poems, which he shares regularly with
residents of several local nursing homes.
Santillo, Starr Farms recreational
director, says the seniors look forward
to Abairs monthly matinees.
More and more residents keep coming
to hear him, and they have their
favorites now, she says.
nearly every holiday, my grandfather
would write a poem about someone he
worked with, Abair tells the
audience one recent afternoon, noting
that Leddys poetry also concerned
issues that marked his generation, such
as Prohibition, corrections and the
controversy surrounding who discovered
the North Pole.
clan settled in Underhill in the late
1800s after fleeing the Irish potato
famine. Young George Leddy left the farm
and moved to Burlington, working first in
woolen mills, then selling ice cream and
candy on Church Street, and finally
working at the Strong Hardware Store,
which occupied the space where Burlingtons
Courthouse Plaza now stands. His second
cousin was Judge Bernard Leddy.
Id spent more time talking with my
grandfather before he died in 1967,
Abair says wistfully. The poems
have always been in the family. But
sometimes art is better as it ages.
Abair and his eight siblings paid little
attention to their grandfathers
hobby. We knew he wrote poetry, and
now and then wed steal a few verses
when we had to write a poem for school,
retires from IBM next month, Abair aims
to share the Leddy legacy with a broader
local audience. He has submitted a
proposal for First Night, and will
perform at the Ethan Allen Homestead on
July 8. He will continue performing, too,
for seniors, many of whom hes
become attached to, while carving out a
niche as a balladeer a
seemingly illogical moniker since there
is no music in his act.
myself a balladeer because these poems
are much more lyrical than poems you hear
today, offers Abair, who has little
admiration for modern poets who
just read their work off the page.
Memorization, he insists, is the key to
poetry. You have to take it into
yourself, like a prayer, he says.
Abair makes a performance of poetry by
reciting it, but he otherwise has nothing
in common with slam poets. Hes
attended slam events at the Rhombus
Gallery, but its nothing he wants
to get into his is an older
art, he says.
amazing what you can memorize when you
put your mind to it, notes one
Starr Farm listener, especially
when youre young.
write poetry? asks another senior.
dabble, Abair admits, but
nothing as good as these.
though, runs in the Abair family. He
sculpts and plays piano and guitar;
brothers Phil and David are popular local
musicians, often performing together as
The Abair Brothers Band; and sister Carol
was a finalist in the competition for
Vermonts official state song.
concludes the days final poem,
thanks his appreciative audience, and
tucks a cardboard Kinkos box filled
with poetry under his arm. It helps
to get your feedback, he tells the
favorite listener offers him a final
handshake and a hug. Remember,
Father, she says, You started