"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Monday, April 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 106: Flying

The next subject Bishop took up in her 3 January 1962 letter had occasionally come up before: flying. She did not like flying and the accounts she now gave her aunts explain in part the reason for her dislike and discomfort. Before her detailed story of how she and Lota travelled to NYC, she first noted, “I am so sorry Aunt Grace was afraid I was in that plane crash,” declaring that Grace should have known otherwise because, as she reiterated, “I did write, as I said, from N.Y.” The only crash in late 1961 that I found that could be the event to concern Grace was: “AerolíneasArgentinas Flight 322 … a scheduled Buenos Aires-São Paulo-Port ofSpain-New York City international passenger service, operated with a Comet 4 …crashed during climbout on the early stages of its second leg, when it collidedwith tree tops shortly after take off … on 23 November 1961. Therewere 52 fatalities, 40 of them passengers.” This flight, however, was going in the opposite direction, that is, towards NYC, and happened long before Bishop and Lota returned to Brazil.
Bishop had written her last 1961 letter to Grace on 12 December and reported earlier in this first 1962 letter that she and Lota left New York on 17 December, well after this crash happened. Just when these letters reached Grace is unknown, but she perhaps had heard about this crash before any of them arrived. One can understand her worry. Air travel in the 1960s was a risky business. Indeed, on 18 September 1961, a Douglas DC-6B, carrying Dag Hammarskjöld,second Secretary-General of the United Nations, crashed near Ndola. All on board died.

(How Bishop knew on 3 January that Grace had thought Bishop might be on this plane is explained later in this long January epistle.)

After this preliminary comment, Bishop noted that they travelled to NYC on “Pan-Am.” Perhaps to divert her aunts from further worry, she launched into a story about that journey northward, back in early November. She said they flew that particular airline “because of our friend the pilot, Page Smith.” I have tried to find such a person online, but have had no luck. Since they were friends of such an important person, Bishop noted that there was “a lot of fuss at the airport.” They got VIP treatment: “we were taken specially out to the plane in a car,” no plebian walking out “like everyone else.” Before boarding “we had our pictures taken several times — with Page in the middle with his arms around our necks.” In spite of what we might regard as a lot of aviation accidents, 22 in 1961, for example, flying was clearly an event with some glamour attached to it.*

The amusing aspect of all of this ado was, as Bishop described, that “the effect … was rather spoiled because we were carrying so many bundles and baskets, etc.” The friend who was “seeing us off said he was ashamed of us — we looked so countryified [sic] — as if we had taken along picnic lunches to eat on the plane.”

This “grand send-off” was short-lived because they “had an awful trip” — clearly, even knowing the pilot only went so far. But, as Bishop noted, “we never do seem to have much luck with planes” (perhaps the reason Grace jumped to her conclusion and worried). For starters, the trip was not direct, but included a first leg to Brasilia, “supposedly for fifteen minutes,” which turned into “six hours — something wrong with the brakes.”**

Because of Lota’s stature with her work on the park in Rio, they “were given a guided tour” of a city they both “hate[d] like poison.” They had “dinner at the hotel” and “waited and waited.”

All this unpleasant delay meant they “got to N.Y. in the middle of the night.” When they got to Perry St., they had to “wake up our friends who live across the street at 4:30 AM to get the keys.”

After such an experience, even their friendship with the pilot didn’t deter them from changing airlines for their return trip: “we decided to switch back to Varig.” It turned out one airline was as bad as the next in this instance, and “even worse.” Even before getting on the plane, “the flight had to be cancelled two or three times because of” Bishop’s work schedule and “because of sleet storms.” Of course, by the time they actually did leave in mid-December, “closer to Christmas, the planes got crowded.” In the end, the “Varig put us on the Argentine Airline — a smaller English Cometjet,” which was in fact the airline and type of plane that had crashed in November 1961!
All Bishop could say about the final return journey home was that “the trip was all right, but several hours late, the food lousy, etc.” It was an overnight flight and Bishop reported that “in the morning just before reaching Rio,” she “started to faint — I didn’t know one could faint, sitting down.” Without missing a beat, “the stewardess immediately hitched me up to an oxygen mask that all passengers seem to have — it cured me in no time.”*** One can only imagine what the cabin pressure and air quality was like then (we know what it is like now!), and Bishop concluded “the air must have been bad to begin with.” Indeed, on 8November 1961 … a Lockheed Constellation L-049, crashed on landing at ByrdField near Richmond, Virginia; all 74 passengers — mostly new US Army recruitsbeing flown to their base for training — died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation,along with three crew members; the captain and flight engineer survive byescaping the burning wreckage.”

No wonder Bishop didn’t like to fly.

Not only did the travellers have their issues, but also the person waiting for them to arrive, “our friend Mary [Morse],” who “had been waiting … at the Rio airport with her baby, Monica, for three hours or more, poor things.” To add insult to injury, Bishop left her “wristwatch on the plane and couldn’t get it back!” Bishop readily confessed all was made worse because “of course I’m always petrified, anyway.” To deal with what was a clear phobia, she resorted to being “heavily drugged … Well, I think flying is greatly over-rated!” I think so too.

The next chunk of this long letter returns to the trials and troubles of family and friends and will be taken up in the next post.


**********
* Note: Even in my youth I remember taking my first flight from Halifax, N.S., to Sydney, Cape Breton, on a class trip. I was 12, so it was 1973. The whole class walked out to the plane and stood outside, some of us even on the steps going into the aircraft, and had our picture taken. I still have the newspaper clipping that covered our excursion.

** I remember in the late 1990s (before 9-11) being on a plane in the airport in Miami waiting to taxi out to the runway, but there was a delay that stretched out for some time: well over an hour and more. I had a window seat and I could see workmen trying to do something under a wing. Well, I began to get quite upset and the crowded plane was starting to get tense. In the end, they had to take us all off because the plane could not be fixed. I was flying from Cancun to Miami to NYC to Halifax. In the end I went from Miami to Toronto and the next morning to Halifax. I don’t fly a lot, so all this stuff was quite unsettling; but I suppose for seasoned travellers, it is par for the course.

*** I remember another trip back from Cancun with my sisters when I had serious issues with pain in my head (one of the reasons I don’t like to fly is because of the air pressure changes, which affect me greatly, even in a pressurized cabin). I, too, had a flight attendant who stepped right up (I could not lift my head off my lap, I was in such pain) and put moist, hot towelettes into two plastic cups and told me to hold them over my ears. It did the trick somehow. The pain quickly began to ease.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 104: 1962 & Back in Brazil

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 3 January 1962, from Rio. The fraught, exhausting time in New York City was past and with the start of another year, Bishop settled herself at her typewriter and began what would be one of her longest letters to her aunt. Actually, it was a long letter to “My dear Aunties.” As Bishop explained at the top, she was “going to do something I really think is very impolite — write you both a letter at the same time.” The other auntie in question was Mary. Bishop used “carbon paper.” (Does anyone remember this device? One had to be a good typist to manage it, as making corrections was difficult. I wonder which one got the carbon copy.)

Bishop reasoned that since she had “the same things to tell both of you, more or less” and since she owed “you both letters,” she opted for this less than ideal approach. She also noted, perhaps with a bit of frustration, that she had not “written any [letters] to speak of since last October,” at least since she and Lota had arrived in New York. In addition to all of these circumstances, she returned to Brazil to find “stacks of mail.” Everything combined caused her “shortcut methods,” for which she wrote, “please forgive me.”

Her claim that she had not written any letters was not actually true, at least in terms of her aunts (and perhaps for others as well), which she corrected at the start of the next paragraph: “I DID, however, write you each a letter shortly after I got to New York.” Upon that arrival, Bishop still believed she might “still make it to either Montreal or Nova Scotia.” Quickly, the amount of work on the Brazil book made her realize that plan was unlikely. Bishop tried to recall just when those letters were written: “around November 15th, I think” (It was actually 10 December for her last letter to Grace in 1961.) As if she needed to defend her claim, she added, “I’m positive about this.” As a rule, Bishop did not make copies of her letters, which went off into space-time never to be seen by her again. With all the frustrations and the need to leave the US quickly in December, it is little wonder Bishop lost track in her mind about when she had written.

After all this avowing, Bishop got to the crux of her frustration, the fact that she had not heard from her aunts, “Apparently neither of you received these letters.” Bishop’s endless complaints about “the Brazilian mails” being “the worst,” had to be rethought in light of these missing letters. But in fact, Grace had received her letter. Perhaps her own busy “Christmas rush” prevented her from writing. Having been told they would be immediately returning to Brazil, perhaps Grace felt it best just to wait until Bishop was settled again. Bishop speculated on what could have happened to her letters: “maybe they still haven’t got to you,” because of that “Christmas rush”; “maybe they got lost”; “or, even more likely — they are there somewhere in that apartment on Perry Street, under the table or something.” Bishop was sure she had given her aunts the Perry Street address, more than once. She clearly had an expectation that she would hear from them at some point while in the US.

When she arrived in NYC, she fully intended to try to see one or both of them, that she would be done with the “Time, Life, Inc.” book by “the end of November.” She never did finish the work on the book and the IRS forced her out earlier than planned, “December 15th or was it 17th, finally.”

Those final weeks and days in the US were rather chaotic for Bishop and she came back to Brazil with the book unfinished: “and I am STILL working on” it. One can hear the exasperation when she moaned, “I don’t think it will ever end.” If Bishop learned anything in this process it was that she “wouldn’t work for them again for $50,000.” She had “never worked so hard in my life” on something that she felt, in the end, “was an absolute waste of time.” The stress had taken a toll physically. She reported she had “lost ten pounds and have had bronchitis ever since I came back!” She was so exhausted by the experience, she also reported that she “slept from the time we got back until Christmas, I think.” Well, an exaggeration, but to make a point.
This “poor little book” was still filling her mind, even as a new year was getting underway. She was sure it “isn’t going to please anyone — me, LIFE, nor the Brazilian friends I did hope to please.” She stated again that both aunts would receive copies. As displeased as she was, she needed her family and friends to see the evidence of all that hard work, fraught and unsatisfactory as it was. She reiterated that even as relentlessly ongoing as the process felt, there was an end in sight: “it will be out around the end of February I think.” She pleaded with her aunts not to “judge my prose style by it, for heaven’s sake.” Bishop was even “awfully disappointed in the photographs.” The Time-Life editors had, apparently, boasted about this part of the book, but Bishop reported that “they had almost none [photographs] when I got there.” She concluded this final chapter of a dreadful saga declaring that she “fought a blood fight for every one you will see,” ending this long paragraph with a hand-written scribble, “— that is any good at all.”

This long letter is just getting started and will require many posts to work through. Before getting to new topics, there was yet one more long reiteration about their time in NY and its impact on her and why she was unable to see either of them, as she so desperately wanted to do. It will comprise the next post.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 103: Reiterations

Bishop’s final letter of 1961 (12 December) began to wind down with a few more reiterations of the things that were on her mind. The remaining three short paragraphs are a bit scattered, giving a sense that she had to go but still wanted to stay connected to Grace, from whom she had not heard in awhile; but considering Bishop’s trip to NYC and Grace perhaps not knowing where to write, this silence was not surprising.

The first final subject she broached was to reiterate how much she “did enjoy seeing Mary and the children in Rio” — this “did” seems slightly defensive, as if somehow Bishop thought Grace might have been told otherwise. Immediately, she asked if her aunt and cousins had told Grace “about the marmoset — little monkey — we had that Joanne was so crazy to take back with her?”
(marmoset)
One of the aspects of her life at Samambaia which Bishop appreciated and enjoyed was all the creatures, domestic and wild. It reminded her of her grandparents’ home in Great Village with its menagerie of critters. I have no idea where they got the marmoset (to go along with the cats, dogs and birds they had), but Bishop noted that “we found him a nice home before we left, thank goodness.”

After this brief reflection on a visit that had happened in October, Bishop returned to her now, “This has been a short nightmare trip.” The Time-Life Brazil book had dominated their stay and caused Bishop deep frustration, which she had alaready vividly conveyed to Grace in previous letters, so Bishop didn’t have to reiterate the particulars of that “nightmare.” She did somewhat wistfully observe, “We are hoping perhaps to get back next spring or fall.” That “perhaps” would have said it all to Grace, who could likely see that Bishop would not return any time soon. And the certainty of it was Bishop’s proviso, “if I save enough of this money …. IF I leave now!” (Remember, the IRS was forcing her out sooner than she thought she would have to leave, if she wanted to prevent paying hefty income tax.)

After this scattered moan, Bishop isolated in one line (perhaps like a line in a poem) her regret: “Please forgive me — I really feel awful.” Grace would know this to be true, that the disappointment would really have been deep on both sides. Still, to add a bit of salt to the wound of this disappointment, Bishop jumped right back to “my Worcester cousins,” whom she had taken time to see. They had been “very nice” and Bishop felt some need to reiterate, “I think they are all really doing their best for Aunt Florence.” She told Grace that having seen them and Florence made her “feel a little beter {sic}.” Expanding on this topic, she felt that her cranky paternal aunt was “relatively happy there,” and thought that it would be “wrong to move her again,” because “places she can afford are hard to find,” by which it seems she means that Florence’s financial resources were depleted. Knowing that Grace had her own experiences caring for the elderly, Bishop noted that “one nurse she does like,” a bit of a surprise, clearly: “the nurse calls her ‘honey’ and Aunt F asked her to call her ‘Florence’,” obviously a breakthrough from Bishop’s perspective, but something that “scandalized Priscilla,” one of the cousins. Bishop noted this cousin was “always on the snobbish side!” From Bishop’s point of view, that her aunt actually “likes someone, at least” was “nice.” This “nurse seemed the one civilized person around, I thought.” Knowing Aunt Florence’s nature, however, one might suggest this nurse was more saintly than civilized.

At this point, Bishop had to stop herself from going on, and she was running out of room on the page. What she really wanted was to “see you and have a long conversation.” One last weak reiteration, “well — maybe we’ll make it in the spring or fall.” But all those qualifiers reveal the dim hope of it happening. Fearing that Grace had “been sick or something,” Bishop signed off “With much love to you as always.” And so ended an eventful year for Bishop. The next post will commence 1962.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Film-maker Barbara Hammer dies at 79

This morning I heard that pioneering film-maker Barbara Hammer recently died. The EB world knows her from her 2015 film "Welcome to This House," her documentary about Bishop's life, focused mostly on Brazil. Barbara visited Great Village and the EB House to do research for this film and I had the privilege of meeting her. Her film screened at the Atlantic Film Festival in September of that year, and I had the honour of speaking briefly at that event. Barbara was a prolific and daring artist who championed many causes. Her legacy is lasting. My heartfelt sympathy and condolances to her family and friends who have lost a vibrant and expressive presence.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 102: Disappointment

Having left behind her sad account of frail, elderly Aunt Florence, Bishop turned to other things in her 12 December 1961 letter. Alas, these things were no cheerier. First, she told her aunt that she had gone “to see my old friend Jane Dewey who is sick.” She was the daughter of the famous philosopher John Dewey. Born in 1900, Jane became a well-known physicist. Bishop first met Jane and her father in the late 1930s in Key West. As Brett Millier writes, Bishop “always said that she understood nothing of [John] Dewey’s philosophy but had boundless admiration for the man. Dewey and Moore were, she said, the most truly ‘democratic’ people she knew — able to talk easily with people of any social, economic, or educational class.” (146) Bishop’s poem “A Cold Spring” is dedicated to Jane Dewey, who lived in Maryland. (I endeavoured to find an image of Jane Dewey on the internet — there are a number of her father — but she seems quite elusive.)
(John Dewey. From Wikipedia.)
Dewey had not only been “sick … for months with ulcer (probably cancer),” Bishop reported that she also had “a broken leg, and a broken arm.” Bishop could only imagine the “tough time” she had had “the past eight months,” but all these troubles made her feel she “just had to see her.” Bishop wrote that Jane was “recovering but her right hand is paralyzed because of a crushed nerve — awful.” Jane Dewey died in 1965.

Even though Bishop apologized for telling her aunt “this tale of woe,” undoubtedly, Grace appreciated the impulse to visit such an invalid and offer some cheer. But what Bishop wrote next might have made Grace wonder a bit.

Bishop began her next explanation with the preamble, “What I want to say makes me feel awful — breaks my heart, honestly.” Grace could have anticipated the next statement: “I don’t think I can get to see you,” something Bishop had been promising with gusto from the start of her report of a return to the US to work on the Brazil book.

The cause of this change of plans was money, something Bishop had not anticipated, declaring, “If only we had known ahead [of] time,” but a matter she had not even thought about. The culprit of this financial issue was the IRS: “I called up my income tax man last week,” who informed her that “as a foreign resident, if I stay only 28 days I can keep all the money I earn … on this job.” Overstaying meant she would “have to pay a whopping tax on it,” Her figure was $1,500.00. A tidy sum in 1961. If she had to cough up this amount, it “would make the whole six month’s job” (most of which happened in Brazil), “scarcely worth having done.” One more reason to regret taking on this project.

Losing that amount of money was “a big enough hunk … to mean a lot in my way of life next year.” As a result of this regulation, she said she now had “to leave the U S before next week.” Bishop was, most certainly, sad about this turn of events: “dreadfully sorry”; “I wanted to see you so much”; “Please believe me … I couldn’t be sorrier.” And having been out of the US so long, one can understand Bishop not knowing income tax rules. Still, Grace must have been disappointed in a way Bishop herself was not, having been promised a visit over and over again. Bishop wished she “were a little richer,” then she could “say to hell with the money and come anyway.” But it was not possible.

Bishop also noted that she had not “heard from you for so long” (Grace probably hesitated to intrude when she knew Bishop was working on such a big job), and Bishop was “wondering how you are and where you are and if everything is all right with you.” Her one suggestion to mitigate the disappointment a little was the possibility of calling, “tonight or tomorrow — no — it’s too late — 11 P M.” Clearly, Bishop is thinking out loud here, for this letter would be days, if not weeks reaching Grace, and Bishop would be well back in Brazil by that time.

She wondered “if Phyllis has a phone?” She also realized that she “shouldn’t have used  this paper,” because it meant she couldn’t include “a Christmas present in it.” But she did say that she would do so “in another envelop [sic].”

This rather frustrated and upset letter began a slow winding down, which the next post will present.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

EB House alumi have exhibition in Halifax

Elizabeth Bishop house alumni Heather Jessup and Claire Battershill have mounted an exhibit opening tomorrow at the Nova Scotia Archives, on University Avenue, Halifax, N.S. They will also be conducting workshops at the Halifax Central Library. Congratulations Heather and Claire.


(Here I am, left, with Claire, centre, 
and Heather, on the verandah of the EB House.)

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Great Village Preservation Society receives heritage award

At a ceremony in Truro, N.S., on 28 February 2019, the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society received an award recognizing its contribution to the heritage of Colchester County. Presented by the Colchester Historical Society, the award recognized the work of the society in preserving the Elizabeth Bishop House in the village. The EBSNS wishes to congratulate the society for its good work with both the EB House and St. James Church, both buildings of tremendous importance to Elizabeth Bishop. Laurie Gunn, Treasurer of the Preservation Society and steward of the EB House, received this award on behalf of the society. She sent along the photos below, which we are happy to share.
(Laurie Gunn receives the award.
Presented by Terry White. Photo by Dan Gunn.)

(The parchment.)
(The citation.)

Friday, February 22, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 101: In New York City

There was a substantial gap between Bishop’s 10 October 1961 letter and her next, dated “New York — December 12th 1961.” Bishop and Lota had left Brazil early in November, “We got here the 10th, I think it was,” she wrote to Grace, “I’m not sure of that now.” Then, in mid-thought she recalled, “no the 8th.” She knew she hadn’t “written to you in ever so long,” couldn’t remember if she’s written “after [Aunt] Mary left Rio.” Since that time, “so many things have been happening.”

They were in New York City so Bishop could work on the Time-Life book about Brazil, which was supposed to take about three weeks to complete, but “it’s four now and I am still working like mad and don’t see much hope for ending it ever.” Things with this fraught project were not going well. Bishop moaned, “I have never worked so hard in my life and never been so tired.” The work itself would have been the main fatigue factor, but being back in the US in winter would also have brought some culture shock and even disorientation, along with excitement.

Even with all the effort she was giving it, Bishop concluded, “the book about Brazil is still going to be awful!” She noted that “it has been an interesting experience — but never again,” at least not for the current outfit. Her long distance view from Brazil had not been overly confident, but upon meeting the editors, she declared, “they are incredible people and what they know about Brazil would fit on the head of a pin.” In spite of this ignorance, they still had “gall … arrogance … general condescension!” All characteristics Bishop could not abide. She did tell her aunt that she felt, even with all of this, “I’ve saved some of the book, and it does tell the truth, more or less.” She noted weakly that “some of the pictures are pretty — but not nearly enough.” She also reported that Grace would “be getting a copy — I’m not sure when — March, maybe.” Grace did receive her copy in due time. It is housed at Acadia University Archives in Wolfville, N.S.

After this frustrated update, Bishop turned to other matters, even though she had “scarcely seen or done anything.” She had managed to see “friends in the evenings a few times,” but she had to get “up at six to start work (they give me chapters to bring home every night!).” She reminded Grace, “Lota is with me,” and that they were “staying at a friend’s studio in Greenwich Village” (Loren MacIver’s apartment), not too far from “where my old garret used to be.” They had this comfortable accommodation because Loren and her husband Lloyd Frankenberg “are in Europe.”
(Bishop lived at 16 Charles St. in Greenwich Village
in the mid-1930s. This is her painting of 41 Charles St.,
not too far away. The McIver abode was in this neighbourhood.
From Exchanging Hats, p., 2-3.)
Bishop was typing Grace’s letter on Lloyd’s “typewriter — vintage 1920, I think.” This instrument was “a huge old Underwood I can’t see over at all.” In addition, there was “no lamp to type by.” This letter, on a piece of air mail stationary, is very faint in the photocopy I received from Vassar, quite unlike the regular letters Bishop typed in Brazil.
(The sort of typewriter of which she speaks.
We can't even imagine such a machine these
days when all we do is touch a screen and
presto, something appears.)
Bishop’s usual “—//” signalled a shift of subject. Bishop reported that the previous week she had gone to Worcester, “my only day off and not a very gay one, as you can imagine.” She flew there in the morning and returned in the evening, “(in a snow storm).” She went to see Aunt Florence, of course, but first connected with her cousins “Nancy and Kay [who] met me.” After the visit with Florence, Bishop had lunch with these cousins, plus another relative, “Priscilla Coe.” Grace would have known who all of these people were. Still more relatives were visited, “the Fultons to see his many children.” Not quite sure who this latter person is, but perhaps he had been married to one of Bishop’s paternal aunts. After all this reunion, Bishop told Grace that she “called on Aunt F again,” on her own. She reported that “the nursing home is NOT good — it has recently changed hands and gone down hill.” In spite of this deterioration, somehow Florence “has been much better — at least she seems much happier, doesn’t make scenes, etc., etc.” She noted that her aunt “is terribly frail and seemed sadly changed to me.” Surely this could not have been surprising to Bishop. How many years had it been since Bishop had seen Florence, perhaps decades?

Also not surprisingly, Florence “doesn’t remember much — just in spots — but I’m sure you know all about it,” meaning that Grace would understand such diminishment from her nursing of elderly patients. Bishop felt that her aunt had tried “hard for my sake, poor old thing.” She even “asked about ‘politics’ in Brazil.” Then she “asked my age and when I said 50 she said, ‘Oh no dear — you must be wrong — Auntie is only 48 so you can’t be 50’.”

Having had such a fraught relationship with this paternal aunt, one wonders why Bishop made the effort to see this frail elderly woman, with whom she had very little bond. Still, she made the effort, probably out of a sense of duty. Florence was the last Bishop, the last of her father’s generation.

Bishop dropped this sad subject and turned to other activities she had managed in the midst of her exhausting slog on the Brazil book. The next post will turn to those activities.


Thursday, February 21, 2019



CCCXXVI

 先生

Unwashed and naughty 
poet, teacher, and good man — 
Wystan Hugh Auden. 


 *     *     * 


 Today is W. H. Auden's one hundred twelfth birthday. 


 *     *     * 


 "In the prison of his days 
Teach the free man how to praise."


Friday, February 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 100: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part IV

Bishop’s letter of 10 October 1961 was starting to wind down. After the detailed account of her visits with Aunt Mary and her cousins, Bishop remembered that things were going on with Grace, too. There had been a wedding (just whose, I can’t quite figure out, but I think it might have been Bud & Lois Bowers’s wedding). Bishop limply observed, “Your wedding sounds fine (but I really don’t like weddings!).” Bishop had not been forgotten for this family ceremony, noting that she had “received the nice invitation a while ago.” She assured her aunt that “if ever I get  to N S I’ll bring them something from N.Y.” But even more than this gift, what Bishop really wanted was to bring her aunt something, “And what would you like from N Y?”

Grace had also, clearly, given Bishop more information about Miriam Sutherland in her most recent letter, which prompted Bishop to say, “I feel absolutely awful about that poor little Miriam.” Whatever Grace had reported, it made Bishop “hope she just dies quickly.” Well, that is an extreme hope and, fortunately, Miriam did not die “quickly” – but lived for decades bringing joy to her family. Bishop knew that it was “tough for Phyllis and Ern,” that it was “rotten luck” and that “Nature can be so cruel.” And while all these observations have some truth to them (it was a challenge to raise Miriam and keep her healthy), Miriam was an integral part of her family, something Bishop saw for herself when she finally did get to Nova Scotia in the early 1970s and met Miriam for the first time. Miriam always vividly remembered “cousin Elizabeth,” even from the relatively brief time they spent together. Indeed, Miriam Sutherland had one of the best memories of any person I have ever met (how many of us can say that!?)

The final paragraph of this long letter continued on with family matters. Grace was with “Phyllis and Ern” while they got things confirmed and sorted out with Miriam; her job was “watching over [the] small boys,” that is the Sutherland sons Wallace and David. It made Bishop worry and urge her aunt not to “work too hard.” Such care-giving would be “strenuous.” Bishop did know something about that sort of tending, from all the children who had spent time with her and Lota. But Grace’s idea for a break didn’t appeal to Bishop, either: “But I don’t think a winter with Aunt Mabel sounds like much fun, either!”
(Mabel Bulmer, left, and Grace Bulmer Bowers, right,
with Mabel’s dog, in Hollywood, Florida,
where Mabel often wintered with her daughter
Hazel Bulmer Snow, circa late 1950s. AUA.)
Bishop suggested an alternative: “How would you like to stay a week  or so in that nice old hotel in Halifax, and just be waited on? The one on the park?” The hotel in question is the Lord Nelson Hotel, east of the Public Gardens, which is still a going concern. Bishop noted, “I always liked it a lot.” Her suggestion was not just an idea but an offer: “I’ll treat you to a week there for a Christmas present if you’d really do it and not spend the money on your family!” (Bishop understood well enough Grace’s selflessness.) Such a week away meant, “breakfast in bed,” going “to the movies,” seeing “the sights.” But then Bishop wondered: “or would you get too bored?” What Bishop really wanted to do was take time off herself and go there with Grace, when she was in “N Y,” “but I’m afraid I won’t” have the time, she sighed, “I have to work every day for at least three weeks in N Y and maybe longer.” And then she noted what was no small issue, “and as you know N Y is expensive” — certainly compared to Brazil and Nova Scotia.
(Lord Nelson Hotel by W.R. MacAskill.
Not sure of the date, but this image shows
the tram lines that used to run on Spring Garden Road.
And to the east there are trees, rather than the wall
of buildings that now line this busy street. NSA.)
A “— //” signalled a shift in her train of thought, returning her to Miriam, a subject she clearly was sort of obsessed with, urging her aunt, once again (how many times?) to get “Dr. SPOCK — PLEASE buy a copy — read it — give it to Phyllis.” Part of her argument was that it wasn’t expensive, “only $1.00 — paper-back.” Since it “sells all over the place,” she was sure “they must have it in N S, too.” It was even “on the newstands in Brazil.” Bishop was certain Grace would “find it fascinating reading — (I do without a baby to my name) — and awfully good.”

This repeated urging had sort of spilled over to her cousin, who did have some babies to her name, but “Eliz[abeth Ross Naudin] won’t read it,” with Bishop avowing, however, that she had not “urged her.” Bishop also had to concede that Grace would “know a lot of it already, with all your vast experience with babies and small children.” Even so, Bishop felt that Dr. Spock “was so damned sensible.” She was sure that “a lot of what he says would help Phyllis and cheer her up a bit, too.”

Finally, she let go of this hobby horse, and with another “//” she turned to one of the other children, “I think it is wonderful Wallace [Phyllis’s oldest child] is going to take up bagpipes.” With her love of Robert Burns, perhaps it is no surprise that she declared, “I do like them!” Well, you either love bagpipes or you don’t.

The letter truly began to wind down, with the final closing wishes: “If you’re with Aunt Mabel, give her my love.” Bishop reiterated, yet again, that she “did write [to Mabel] — but it must have got lost.” And promised she would again “when I get through this book,” though “heaven knows when that will be!”

“As always,” Bishop sent “much love to you,” and made one last pitch, “think of my idea!”

Bishop’s next letter was written over two months later from New York. The next post will take up this final epistle of 1961.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Great Village School photo

(Click this image to enlarge. Courtesy of Michael Colbourne.)


While I’ve been writing about Mary Bulmer Ross’s visit to Brazil in 1961, the photo below of the students and teachers of the Great Village school, 1914–1915 (which building was brand new at that time) came to me from EBSNS member Michael Colbourne. He is the grandson of Maynard Brown Archibald who is seen in this image in the back row, far left. Archibald who taught at the school for a year before he enlisted to fight in World War I. He was not much older than some of the oldest students he taught. Archibald is the father of well-known Nova Scotia writer Budge Wilson. Many years ago, Budge sent me a print of this charming image. While I am very careful with all my Bishop documents and materials, somehow over the years, I lost track of this print. So, I was delighted when Michael sent me a digital version. He has given me permission to share it. Part of the reason I want to share it is that Mary Bulmer is included. She is sitting on the steps, second row (behind the three boys), on the right, in a dark dress. She is holding hands with Una Layton, a very close family friend to all the Bulmer daughters, who sits directly behind Mary, in a white dress. I would love to know who some of the others are in this image. If anyone from Great Village sees this picture and can tell me, that would be greatly appreciated. Archibald became a lawyer and then a federal judge.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

From Our Key West Correspondent


Key West Celebrates Elizabeth Bishop’s
108th Birthday on February 8, 2019

Members of the Key West Poetry Guild and others celebrated Elizabeth’s 108th birthday in style. Sixteen Key West poets read selected poems by or honoring Elizabeth Bishop to a rapt audience of 50 to 60 people. Malcolm Willison gave a short history of Elizabeth Bishop’s life and introduced each poet.

Elizabeth Bishop lived in Key West on and off for ten years. She captured the unique atmosphere of Key West in such poems as “The Bight,” “The Fish” and “Roosters.”

During the intermission all attending had helpings from the huge and delicious birthday cake.

Kay Bierwiler
(click to enlarge)

(The birthday cake!)
Alas, I cannot identify these folks, but it looks like a lovely time. Thanks, Kay, for sharing these images and letting us know how things went. I am sure Key West was much warmer than Nova Scotia on the 8th!!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

EB appears is the strangest places

I took my elderly father out for coffee yesterday afternoon to a local eatery called The Big Scoop. Every Friday they have a stack of a little local newspaper called The Reader, which covers the area from Annapolis Royal to Middleton. Imagine my surprise when I saw a thumb nail photo of EB on the front page and then read the "On this Date" -- acknowledging that 8 February is special because it is her birthday. Here are the pages in question. Today is my elderly father's birthday. He is 88. Happy birthday dad. And all others whose birthday is in the deep mid-winter.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 99: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part III -- and Happy Birthday Elizabeth

If EB were living today, she would be 108. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Elizabeth. Folks in Key West are having a birthday celebration in her honour today. Our Key West correspondent has promised an account of the festivities, so stay tuned! For now, the next installment of Letters to Aunt Grace.

**********
The next couple of paragraphs of Bishop’s 10 October 1961 letter shifts focus to the arrival of “the other Mary,” that is, their friend Mary Morse and her adopted daughter Monica. They had been in the US for several months and their return coincided with the visit by Aunt Mary and cousins John and Joanne. After sending them back with the Naudins, after a successful family visit, Bishop reported to Grace that “Lota and I got up as 4 [a.m.] Sunday.” This early rise was because they too had to get to Rio in time to meet Mary Morse’s “7 A M” flight, “Same flight as AUNT M [the week before] — the jets” from the US all arrived at the same time.

This run to Rio included “our cook and ‘butler’ …. Maria & Alberto.” They “had never seen the ocean, never seen a city — never seen an airplane except away up in the air.” Bishop reported what was to be expected, “you can imagine the excitement — hysteria almost.”

As it turned out, “we had to wait over an hour at the airport” (some things are timeless and universal). Not surprisingly, “Maria had to go to the bathroom.” This was when the trouble started: “poor Alberto, innocent lamb, went in with her.” Bishop reported that “before we could get there a policeman was shouting at him ‘Lack of respect! Indecency!’ etc etc.” Even as they explained that Alberto “couldn’t read” signs such as “Ladies & Gents,” it made no difference. Bishop’s conclusion, “they are such stupid brutes, policemen — the world over, I suppose.”

After that upset, Mary Morse arrived and they all returned to the “tiny apartment” in Rio, prompting Bishop to report, “It has been rather hectic [with] Lota, me, Mary (the friend Mary, that is — all these Marys and Elizabeths are confusing) Monica,” and “the couple.” Bishop noted that Monica “is walking now, like a drunken sailor.” And Maria and Alberto “are so excited by everything,” clearly putting the run in with the law behind them. Bishop confessed, “we send them out to see the sights, just to get them out of the way.” Their excursions were a mixed blessing, Bishop noting that they “then get scared for fear they’ll get lost, run over, etc.” Alberto appears to have been more adventurous because he “bought himself a pair of bright yellow bathing trunks and has just taken his first ocean swim.” Maria preferred to watch this “from our terrace — sure he’s gong to drown, in waves up to his knees.” Bishop perhaps would have enjoyed their discoveries more if things had been a bit less chaotic.

After this digression, she returned to family reports, noting that Elizabeth Naudin’s little daughters, “Suzanne & Diane behaved very well Saturday.” She noted that Diane was “a little better than Suzanne,” and judged that Diane’s “disposition” was “sweet … anyway.” She confirmed that their parents “are very good with them” (being so keen about child-rearing, Bishop had much to say about parenting!).

She felt the Naudins and the Rosses, one and all, didn’t “care much for our house! (Although they’re all very polite about it!)” Bishop concluded this dislike was because “it’s too modern for them, I’m afraid.” Lota’s architecturally prize-winning house was, Bishop thought, “not much like a cozy house in Montreal!” Bishop presumed that for them  “it probably seems like a barn … big and bare.” But her defense of it was the climate: “one wants space, cool floors, and no upholstery.”
(John Ross, jr. and Mary Bulmer Ross at her home
in Montreal, circa late 1960s. AUA.)
Even so, John Ross Jr. “said he’d like to come to live in Brazil.” So some aspects of the place appealed. And Bishop reiterated that she “showed Mary absolutely everything in the house … except the china-closet.” She hoped that Mary would be able to return at least once more before she departed, so that her niece could “fill in everything she missed!” Mary was clearly curious about “everything.” And it appeared to Bishop that they were all “have a pretty good time, and Ray is taking time off and they’re going up to Teresopolis,” where his family lived. This place was “higher in the mountains.”

Even if Mary could not return to Petrópolis, Bishop said she would “see her whenever I can get a chance,” and she was planning “to take them to lunch at one of the nice outdoors [sic] place I like.” Whatever else was possible had to be fit in between work, “I just wish I weren’t so DAMNED busy on this book.” Having visitors did not stop the “political events — that keep right on happening.” One consequence of the volatile political situation was it meant Bishop had “to re-write” parts of the book “two times, at least.” You can hear the sigh when she wrote, “I feel as if I were going made.” And wound down this dense paragraph with, “at least we did have a couple of days.”

This long letter was starting to wind down. The next post will conclude with another call from Bishop for Grace and Phyllis to read Dr. Spock!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop House Residency accepting applications

The Elizabeth Bishop House hosts an artist residency for two weeks each September. The application process is now open. The deadline is 15 April. Below are the particulars if you want to submit an application. The inaugural artist in residence was Canadian poet Claudia Radmore. September is a lovely time to be in NS! Good luck. You can click the image to make it larger.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 98: Aunt Mary’s Visit, Part II

I left off Bishop’s account of Aunt Mary’s visit, in her letter of 10 October, at the point where she and Lota drove Mary to Samambaia in their “tiny car.” Bishop then described the scene they saw when they arrived. Because of the “terrible drought here — not a drop of rain in four months,” the landscape was feeling the affects. One consequence of this aridity was “bush-fires,” so “all around the house … everything is black.” To Bishop, “it looked like HELL!” But she was used to the lush green and vibrant colours. Mary, other hand, “seemed to like the scenery all right, anyway.”

Mary also liked the cats, who were starved for attention. Bishop’s own “Tobias took a great fancy to her, and ate breakfast in bed with her,” though Bishop observed in what was likely a wry tone that Tobias couldn’t “compare to Pouchie!” Mary’s own cat.

Having arrived in the mountains, Bishop reported that both Mary and Lota (who was working hard on the park) “took long naps (I think she [Mary] was really awfully tired,” not surprising after the long trip and the intensity of the reunion. After this refresher, Bishop noted that they then “stayed up till after mid-night gossiping.” I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. A lot of catching up to do.

“The next day we took her to Petrópolis and back.” I remember the grandeur of some of the buildings in this mountain city, where the Portuguese emperors lived and ruled their empire for a long time. Mary would have been impressed by the palace, cathedral, opera house and massive museum, among many other imperial buildings.
(Palácio Rio Negro, the President's summer home.
One of the many ornate buildings in the city.)
After this outing, “then all the rest of the cousins arrived for lunch.” Before the meal, they went for “a swim in a friend’s pool.” The drought had made the water level in their brook “so low that for the first time in all these years our little swimming-hole is too low to swim in.” Afterwards they all sat down to “a big Brazilian style lunch.”

This visit would have been really important to Bishop and she reported to Grace, “I think it was all pretty successful.” She found her youngest aunt to be “a good guest — she is interested in absolutely everything and remembers the names of the flowers and trees, etc.” They had had plenty of guests who “pay no attention at all to anything in the country,” but, after all, Mary was a born country girl, even if she’d transplanted to the big city of Montreal after her marriage. As pleased as Bishop was to have this engagement from her aunt, she added a brief addendum at this point, signalled by an asterisk: *But I wished it had been my favorite aunt,” meaning, of course, Grace.

That said, Bishop still “wanted to keep her over to go back with us Sunday P M or Monday morning,” when they usually made their way back to Rio. The obstacle to that plan was “a cable saying that our friend Mary [Morse] (with the adopted baby Monica)” would arrive Sunday morning. This anticipated return was one of the reasons Bishop “wanted everyone that Saturday,” or there would have been “just too many people to handle!”

As a result, “Mary (our Mary) went back” with the Naudins Saturday afternoon. Though “a short visit,” Bishop concluded that it was “very nice.”

You can sense not only the relief in her report but also her pleasure that she could host her relatives so graciously, offer them a memorable visit, even if the drought had turned the landscape into a kind of wasteland.

The next part of the letter veers away for awhile from familial matters and towards their own concerns. The next post will take up these other concerns.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 97: Aunt Mary’s visit, Part I

Bishop’s next letter to Aunt Grace is dated “Rio, October 10th — 7 A.M.,” a month after her previous letter. This epistle is twice as long as the previous one because it reports the greatly awaited arrival and visit of Mary Bulmer Ross and her daughter Joanne and son John (siblings to Elizabeth Naudin). Bishop packed in as much of an update about this family company as she could, on the two pages she allowed herself. The next several posts will present this update, a bit at a time.

Her first order of business was to explain the early time of day: “I get up at 5 & 6 these days to get to work early.” Being in Rio and with Lota deep into the park work, the phone “starts ringing for Lota! (around 8).” The apartment in Rio was much smaller than their big house in Samambaia, and there was no estudio, so Bishop had a harder time concentrating with all the hubbub.

She then acknowledged Grace’s letter of 27 September, which she had received “yesterday,” though “it really came about a week ago.” It was sent to Samambaia so had to be sent to town by Alberto, “our darling ‘butler’,” who put it and other mail on a bus, but “got everything wrong (he can barely read).” As a result, “nine letters were lost in the Rio bus-station for about a week.” They had finally turned up and delivered to their recipients.

Then Bishop confirmed what Grace had likely surmised, that “all kinds of things” had happened and she “thought you’d like to hear about” them, even though “Mary is writing you, or may even have written by now.” That is, Aunt Mary.
(Elizabeth Ross Naudin, Mary Bulmer Ross
and Suzanne Naudin, late 1950s. AUA.)
Bishop reported that “they arrived the 30th [of September], a week ago Sat.” Bishop had gone “to dinner at Eliz’s that night to see everybody.” She noted that “of course they were all pretty exhausted,” including the Naudins who “had stayed up until 4 the night before — and gone to the airport about 6!” Anyone who has travelled such a great distance or who has received travellers from afar can see in this brief report that things have not changed with air travel — the sleepless anticipation and the sleepless en route. Undoubtedly, Mary and her children would have never yet ventured so far in their lives. Perhaps the furthest south Mary had ever been was Cuba, where she nursed at the Stranger’s Hospital for a year or so, and where she met her husband John Ross.

The day they arrived, Bishop “went that AM and baby-sat [at the Naudins] a bit while they were out, just to see if everything was all right.” The Naudins had a maid but Bishop reported unkindly that she was “rather dumb … poor thing,” so she wanted to make sure the children were okay. She “left around 8:30 — then went back for the dinner-party.”
 (Elizabeth Ross Naudin, John Ross jr., Joanne Naudin.
Early 1950s. AUA.)
Bishop then assessed the visitors. She would not have seen Aunt Mary for many years. She observed, that her aunt (only eleven years older than Bishop) looked “rather old, to me, as I undoubtedly look rather old to her, too!” Even so, Mary was as “good-looking” as ever. Perhaps Bishop had never seen Joanne Ross, whom Bishop thought was also good-looking, but “too bad she didn’t get the pretty nose the others have.” She concluded with, “I think I like John [the son, not the father, who had died in 1959] the best of all” because “he’s so quiet and has such a nice smile and — I think the best sense of humor in that family.” John was also a handsome young man, and clearly charming.
(John Ross jr. He is standing in front of a George W. Hutchinson
painting in Mary Bulmer Ross's home in Montreal. Another version
of this painting was found in Parrsboro in the early 2000s, but the
location of this second painting is now unknown. AUA.)
After this initial reunion, Bishop noted that she “was too busy all week to see anyone — scarcely went out of the apt. except to get a broken tooth fixed.” But the Friday morning of that week “we picked up Mary and drove her up to Petrópolis — in our tiny car, loaded with bags and food.”

The next post will continue the account of Aunt Mary’s visit.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 96: Expenses

The final two short paragraphs of Bishop’s letter of 10 September 1961 contain an assortment of subjects. Grace had told Bishop of another important family development, which prompted Bishop to say: “You are going to be very elegant for the wedding.” I am not sure who was getting married, but likely it was either Wallace (Bud) Bowers or Rod Bowers, Phyllis’s brothers. It would be about the time for such events to happen. Phyllis had been married for some time, but the boys took longer to settle down. I knew Bud and his wife Lois for many years, but never thought to ask when they were married. Being “elegant” indicates this union was an important one for Grace. Mother of the groom would do it.
(l. to r.: Wallace (Bud) Bowers, Lois Bowers, Phyllis Sutherland.
Standing: Maria Lucia Martins. Early 2000s. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
Bishop’s interest in Grace’s attire is not surprising, as she was particular about her own clothing. She dressed simply, but she usually had clothes tailor made. She told her aunt that the trip to New York City meant she “had to have clothes made…” She found this requirement “annoying, because when I get back here it will be HOT and I won’t be able to use them.” New York in October and November would be anything but hot. That said, she indulged because “they’re cheaper here, a lot.” This expense made her think of another expense that was greater in the U.S.: “I just pray I never get sick in the USA — I have no Blue Cross or anything like that.” Having to go to “a hospital makes my blood run cold — the expense.” This train of thought brought her back to her aunt’s recent health ordeal, and she remarked how glad she was that “you got through it so reasonably.”

Then a quick question, prompted by another of Grace’s comments: “Where does the $10 a day come from?” Not a lot of money today, but in 1961, probably a nice monthly stipend to receive. Just what its source was is hard to say. A pension?

Bishop was finally winding down for good with this rather brief letter, reiterating that it was written mostly “just to say I feel cheered up about the baby [Miriam Sutherland].” Even so, she knew it was a trial for the parents: “poor Phyllis and Ern.” And she hoped “the little boys [Wallace and David] aren’t too strenuous for you.” Which indicates that Grace was with the Sutherlands, helping out while the parents clarified matters with their little daughter. Wallace and David loved their little sister and were devoted to her all their lives. They were both still quite young in 1961, so Phyllis and Ern had their hands full. Bishop understood this situation and urged her aunt to “Please take it as easy as you can.”

As the letter came to its close, Bishop alerted her aunt to the fact that she would not be able to write “for some time since I am away behind with this damnable book [the Time-Life Brazil book].” She asked Grace to “let me know where you’ll be,” and closed “With lots of love.”
In the margin of this letter, which fit on one page, Bishop typed a p.s. to clarify the postmark on the envelope which was “Copacabana Palace.” She told her aunt that they “mailed letters up the street at the hotel now, in Rio — they have a stamping machine & it’s safer.”

The envelope clearly shows this impressive stamp and also shows that Bishop sent this letter to Great Village, even though she realized Grace was helping Phyllis, who at that time lived in New Glasgow, N.S. Someone in Great Village (at the Bowers farm) dutifully re-directed the letter to its proper coordinates in that town: “486 Chisholm St.

Bishop’s next letter was written exactly a month later, and will be taken up in the next post.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Elizabeth Bishop birthday party in Key West

The poster below arrived via our Facebook page the other day. Nice to see that somewhere someone will celebrate Bishop's 108th birthday in February. Wish I could "Come Flying" and join the festivities in Key West. I am sure a lively time will be had by all. We hope that the folks there will let us know how things go and send us a photo or two!