A Storyteller's Story

by Chris Abair

Bert leddy and parentsMy grandfather, George Albert Leddy, was born in 1883 in a logging camp near Underhill, Vermont. He was second-generation Irish-American and self-educated. The clan had farms in the area and worked in the lumber industry. They were always active in politics. Bert, as they called him, longed for adventure in the Klondike and Out West but settled for work in Burlington. In 1923, he was partners with Floyd Myrick in an ice cream parlor on Church St. called Ledrick’s. That led to employment at General Ice Cream and Sealtest. He went on and retired from the Strong Hardware Store in Burlington. Many of the poems he wrote in his later life were about the people he worked with there.

Bert Leddy and wife Helen (Collins)When my grandfather died in 1967, I was sixteen and had no idea how great his poetry was. We all knew he was very creative and his house was full of his inventions, like: the candy-making machines, electric lawn-mowers, and motorized ice-sleigh. We called him Baboo because he’d always say “bah boo” to the babies when he held them. We called my grandmother Darling, and they were loving grandparents to us nine grandchildren.  I only knew them in old age and mostly remember them sitting in their parlor watching westerns and soap operas on TV. Their daughter Mary, my mother, was their only child, and we grew up a few blocks away from them in the south-end of Burlington, Vermont.

Bert Leddy and grandkids Mark and DaivdWe knew he wrote poetry, and remember him typing away on his manuscripts in his bedroom. Occasionally he would recite one of his poems, or a Robert Service poem like The Cremation of Sam McGee. At the time us kids were more interested in Rock ’n Roll than poetry and paid little attention. As I got older, and a little wiser, I realized we needed to preserve his works. So I first made photocopies of his two old manuscripts of poetry. Then, when PC’s and word processing programs came along, I set out to transcribe and compile his poems into a book. In the process I discovered poetry and, particularly, the oral tradition of storytelling.

The poems were mostly detailed stories composed in perfect lyrical rhyme and meant to be recited from memory—some take 15 minutes to perform. The manuscripts were typed-up with little punctuation, mostly dashes to indicate pauses between phrases. I needed to go through each poem thoroughly, line by line, verse by verse, to get the right meaning and expression in order to supply the correct punctuation. At the time I knew little about proper grammar, punctuation, and poetic structure. I would recite the lines out loud to get the right expression and found some so full of emotions like sadness and hate that they would bring tears to my eyes. I also found that I needed to stand up and use gestures to best communicate the verse. It was then that I realized that this poetry was not just meant to be read, but heard, and it came to life when recited with passion and emotion, from the heart.  

Chris performing his grandfather's balladsAfter completing the book in 1998, I started memorizing the poems and performing them at coffeehouses, senior centers, and retirement homes. I was very encouraged. Now, I’ve memorized over three hours of poetry, including poems by others like Robert Frost and Robert Service. Calling myself a storyteller, I’ve gone on to perform for many organizations, at all types of venues, and at festivals around the region. I’ve even appeared on radio and TV—which today overshadow poetry as the medium for storytelling. Now I’m using the computer and Internet to produce and publish media based on my grandfather’s poetry.

I often wonder, if my grandfather were alive today, what he would think of what I’ve done with his poetry. I would have so many questions for him: Am I reciting the poems the right way? How had he been able to write so accurately about the West, the Arctic, and the sea—when he had little formal education and had never left Vermont? Where, when, and for whom did he recite his poetry?

I really believe that my grandfather is somehow, someway behind my passion and drive to preserve and publish his works. It may be his genes that give me the ability to memorize and naturally recite poetry, and his spirit that drives my efforts. Maybe this is how oral traditions like poetry and storytelling survive through the generations, and I’m just doing my part.