Remembering Maple Corner's Eleanor Kokar Ott: 'She Was Completely Curious and Open to Everything' | Life Stories | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Remembering Maple Corner's Eleanor Kokar Ott: 'She Was Completely Curious and Open to Everything' 

Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Eleanor Ott (left) with her friend Maija Rothenberg in June 2023 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Eleanor Ott (left) with her friend Maija Rothenberg in June 2023

This "Life Stories" profile is part of a collection of articles remembering Vermonters who died in 2023.

Eleanor Ott had a genius for bringing people together. In the book-lined dining room of her 19th-century farmhouse in Maple Corner, she ran an eclectic backwoods salon, hosting women's discussion groups and rune feasts to fête the solstices. At her table, you might find yourself elbow-to-elbow with a close friend of the crown prince of England, a psychic healer from Iceland, or a photographer who had documented the Civil Rights movement.

On most subjects, she had at least one book and several well-researched opinions. "She was completely curious and open to everything, except for maybe the National Football League," her friend Andy Christiansen said.

Eleanor's inner world was as vibrant as her outer one. Widely read in shamanism and Norse mythology, she taught anthropology and folklore at Goddard College from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s. She often dreamed about animals and seemed to climb into their consciousness as easily as she could recite the names of eastern woodland bird species.

click to enlarge Eleanor Ott knitting in her office at Goddard circa 1973 - COURTESY OF JON QUBE
  • Courtesy of Jon Qube
  • Eleanor Ott knitting in her office at Goddard circa 1973

"It wasn't anything for her to say that she'd been sitting by her kitchen window and was suddenly 'out there,' in the fox. Meaning she was the fox," said Eleanor's friend Kathleen Osgood, who edited three books of her prose, poetry and drawings, called Heart-Work Trilogy: Three Books to Open Our Hearts.

For Eleanor, the study of the arcane was part of her lifelong yearning for a connection to something bigger — to a family that encompassed humans, animals and unseen spirits. Through her own search for belonging, she built a community that became a family unto itself. Following a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, she died on August 13 at the age of 86 at her home in Maple Corner, while eight or nine of her friends sat vigil around a bonfire in her yard and sang to her through her window.

Eleanor was born in New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Her birth mother surrendered her to an orphanage when she was barely 2 years old, and she was adopted by a couple who lived in Bristol, Pa. Her adoptive father, Paul Forster, was an attorney; his wife, Helen, was a high school history teacher. They rented a room in their big Victorian house to a single woman, a teacher who had traveled all over Europe and documented her adventures in journals and black-and-white photographs, which she showed to young Eleanor in the living room during the World War II blackouts.

After earning a degree in philosophy and literature at North Carolina's Warren Wilson College and a master's in education at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, Eleanor went to the University of Pennsylvania for a PhD in anthropology and folklore. In her twenties, she biked alone across England, hanging out at archaeological dig sites by day and camping along the side of the road at night. Eleanor had an abiding interest in primitive structures; at Goddard, one of her signature courses was titled: "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About a Stone Wall but Were Too Afraid to Ask." Her brief marriage to Tom Ott, a poet, ended in the early '70s, shortly after she moved to central Vermont.

Eleanor had a personal cosmology that transcended the bounds of any religious or spiritual tradition. "She had a real deep sense that her little lifetime, in this little place, is part of a tiny, huge flow — of humanity, of life," said her longtime friend Maija Rothenberg. She first met Eleanor in 1971, when Rothenberg's then-boyfriend was a student in Eleanor's class on William Blake at Goddard. Eleanor invited the couple to go camping with her on an island off the coast of Maine, which Rothenberg assumed would be an uncomfortably rustic experience, featuring many undercooked hot dogs. Instead, Eleanor served them fresh lobsters and dolmas stuffed with lamb and pine nuts, made with grape leaves that she grew on her property.

"She introduced me to a whole different way of seeing the world," said Rothenberg, who now lives in Chicago. "You know how some people just talk at you, like, 'Blah blah blah, how are you? Blah blah blah'? It wasn't like that with Eleanor. She saw you. She was ready to take things in." One year, for her birthday, Rothenberg sent her a kitschy garden rock that said, "Fairies are welcome here." When Eleanor received it, she seemed a bit dubious. "I don't know if I want fairies in my garden," she told Rothenberg.

Since her early childhood, Eleanor had known that she was adopted, and the mystery of her birth family was like a locked box that she carried with her at all times. "Because my pre-adoption identity was a profound riddle to me, I seesawed between experiencing the classic archetypal figures of the abandoned victim and the blessed survivor," Eleanor wrote in an essay titled "Reflections on My Given Name," published in one of the books of her trilogy. "Neither of these feelings in me was stable enough to claim me, breeding a deep uncertainty about who I was, about what my relation to my past history was, which, of course, I did not know."

click to enlarge Eleanor Ott - COURTESY OF PEG TASSEY
  • Courtesy of Peg Tassey
  • Eleanor Ott

One weekend, Rothenberg said, Eleanor and her friend Nancy deGroff took a trip up to Montréal. They went to dinner at a Hungarian restaurant, where live performers played Hungarian folk music. On the drive home that night, Eleanor had a sudden emotional breakdown. "They had to pull over. Nancy had to drive. It didn't make any sense," Rothenberg said. Several years after that episode, when Eleanor began searching in earnest for information about her family of origin, she made a startling discovery: Her birth parents were Hungarian.

"She would have heard this language and maybe some of these songs in her first 16 months of life that were deep inside her psyche," Rothenberg said. In some visceral way, Eleanor had known the truth about her identity all along.

Through a Hungarian Catholic church in New York City, Eleanor found birth records indicating that she could be the daughter of one of three sisters, whose last name was Kokar. She tracked down one of their sons, Lou Cherry, a social worker who lived on Long Island. "We may be cousins," she told him on the phone. As it happened, they were both going to be in Chicago for Thanksgiving, and they arranged to meet at O'Hare airport.

On the appointed day, Rothenberg drove Eleanor to O'Hare. "She was positively vibrating in her seat," Rothenberg recalled, "just like a nuclear reactor." Rothenberg had booked "one of those high-roller airline lounges" for the occasion. A few minutes after they arrived at the lounge, as Rothenberg tells it, "the door opens, and in comes this, like, elf." Cherry was exactly Eleanor's height, with the same nimbus of curly hair. He later told Eleanor that as they embraced for the first time, he had an overwhelming thought: "This isn't a cousin. This is my sister. She looks exactly like my mom."

Over the next three decades, Eleanor and Cherry forged a deep bond that answered Eleanor's need for a connection with her unknown past. In 2012, he moved into her house and took care of her when her Parkinson's progressed to the point where she could no longer manage alone, and Eleanor dedicated one of the books of her trilogy to him: "It has only been possible to collect and bring into public view this volume with support, guidance, chicken paprikash, and endless photocopying of Lou Cherry," she wrote. In 2021, Cherry died of pancreatic cancer. In the final years of Eleanor's life, her friend Trees-ah Elder, a nurse, lived with her and cared for her.

In the wake of Eleanor's death, the members of her chosen family — including her runes group, which used to gather every Monday night around her dining room table — have been at a loss for how to proceed without their matriarch. On August 20, which would have been Eleanor's 87th birthday, some of the group members tried to consult the runes for guidance, Christiansen said. But their grief clouded their ability to take in the message.

"To do a good job picking the runes, you have to sort of abstract yourself and let go of attachments," he said. "I wasn't doing a very good job of that in that moment."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'She Was Completely Curious and Open to Everything' | Eleanor Kokar Ott, August 20, 1936-August 13, 2023"

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Chelsea Edgar

Chelsea Edgar

Chelsea Edgar is a staff writer for Seven Days, and has written for BuzzFeed and Philadelphia magazine.


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