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

Friday, October 19, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 83 — Postcards

Over a month passed before the next communication from Bishop to Grace — at least the postcard that was sent on 6 March 1916 is the one that survives. It is not possible to know if Bishop had written in the interim (since the 30 January letter), but perhaps not because as the following postcard, dated 27 April (again, a significant gap), shows, the quiet life at Samambaia had given way to long stretches in busy Rio.

The March postcard was typed and was by way of acknowledging a “nice letter” from Grace. With very little room, Bishop offered a quick update, reporting that “Monica is a darling baby … so good and laughs all the time.” She declared that Mary was lucky to have such a child. Then she described the verso of the postcard: “the house where we stay in Ouro Preto.” This house belonged to their friend Lilli Correia de Araújo and was called Pouso Chico Rei. She noted that it “is run as a small hotel … room for 8 people.” Bishop wrote that she wanted the Naudins to “go there — in fact they must!” But even more than that, Bishop wanted Grace to visit her and see this historic city: “Oh dear — I wish you were coming here instead — or too, I shd. say!” hinting that the dynamics with her cousin remained fraught.
(The image on EB's postcard of Lilli's hotel)
Bishop urged her aunt “to find out about the boat fares and let’s see.” Bishop promised that she would look into “freighter fares” (a preferred way for Bishop to travel), but she recognized that such a mode of transportation might be an issue for her elderly aunt because “they are apt to take forever.” But, then, perhaps Grace wouldn’t mind “18-25 days at sea.” Bishop commiserated over airplanes “(I loathe flying, too, even if I do it once in a while.)” And acknowledged that ship travel was “more expensive than tourist-planes now.”
(Pouso Chico Rei still operates. I know a couple of people who have stayed there in recent years, and am told there is an EB room!)
The card was nearly full so Bishop quickly added the old news: “I got a grant a while ago” (the Chapelbrook Foundation Fellowship), which required her “to go travelling on it this year.” A little scribble on the front of the postcard was it for this brief missive.

If Bishop responded to Grace’s March letter, it does not survive. Her next note to Grace is another postcard, this one hand-written, dated 27 April. It was written in Rio, where Bishop said they now spent “3 or 4 days every week … because of Lota’s job.” Being more in Rio meant that she was able to see her cousin more: “I saw E and Suzanne yesterday,” perhaps to give a birthday present to the child who had turned five on 12 April. It appears Bishop had not heard recently from her aunt, but said that her cousin “said she’d heard from you — I hope that means you are lots better & up & about.” Bishop had clearly heard something of this most recent trouble, though just what was wrong with Grace is not stated.

The verso of this postcard showed a bird’s eye view of the Rio waterfront, expansive enough for Bishop to be able to show where she and Lota were in relation to the Naudins. Bishop marked north-south-east-west on the image and put an X where she lived and where the Naudins lived. Bishop was ever making maps!

Bishop still had not given up hope that Grace would visit, as she concluded this scribble message by saying, “If you came you could stay here if you wanted.” She signed off by saying that she hoped to “hear from you soon — Love, Elizabeth.”

The next communication from Bishop, dated 20 June 1961, is a full-blow letter, which will be the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Moya Pacey reads at Elizabeth Bishop House

Australian writer Moya Pacey gave a reading at the Elizabeth  Bishop House on Thursday evening 11 October.
(Moya at the dining room table in the EB House.
Photo supplied by the poet.)
In spite of cold, rainy weather, there was a good turnout for this intimate sharing from her two collections The Wardrobe and Black Tulips.
(Listening to the poet read. Photo supplied by the poet.)
It is such a wonderful thing to know that such events are once again happening in this dear old place. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for taking such good care of this important heritage site and making it available to artists and readers from across the globe.

I understand that there are only about eight spots available for the fall-winter booking season at the house. Check out the EB House facebook page to find out more.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 82: Diversions

The final paragraph of Bishop’s 30 January 1961 letter is not nearly as long and detailed as the previous one, but it contains a hint of a change in their lives that had far greater impact than the arrival of a baby. Before this reveal, Bishop returned to Grace’s letter and responded to a plan her aunt had mentioned: “I think you are wise not to go to Florida, under the circumstances” (none of which we know in detail, but all related to the stress and strain among Grace, Mabel and Hazel as they cared for and dealt with the illness and death of Eleanor Boomer Shore).

Bishop paused with a dash and then typed, “Don’t please think of my birthday!*” Bishop would turn 50 on 8 February and Grace had already thought about it. The asterisk pointed to a scribble at the bottom of the page where Bishop thanked her aunt “for the nice (& unusually sensible!) card —” As for Bishop, she asked Grace if she knew “how old I will be?” and declared, “I simply don’t believe it” and she had decided to “just ignore the whole thing. —//” That double back-slash seeming to end the matter for further discussion.

At this point, the other big change was introduced. Bishop reported that they were regularly “going to Rio because Lota has a wonderful new job — or is about to — very important, with the new government.” This job was to head up the development of a large section of waterfront in Rio: the construction of Parque do Flamengo. Carlos Lacerda, the new governor of the state of Guanabara and an old friend of Lota, recruited her for this major urban renewal project.
Bishop declared that she was “delighted” because it was “just the kind of thing she can do.” Nothing so ambitious is ever as simple, straight-forward or easy as it seems and Bishop noted that “being politics it’s all uncertain still.” The uncertainty soon resolved and before long Lota was totally immersed in the whirl and stress of this mega-project and they were spending much more time in Rio. In the end, this project took a huge toll on both women and on their relationship, but in these early days, the excitement and rightness of it dominated.
 (A view of the park completed.)
At that moment, Bishop told her aunt that she was “extra glad” for Lota “because it will take her mind off her troubles with the adopted son.” This family strife was, according to Bishop, caused by the son “who behaved rather like our relatives, only worse.” Bishop promised to “tell you the awful story” sometime. This trouble had “upset” Lota so much “because she was so devoted to those five ‘grandchildren’ — we both were, and are.” Strife in general and perhaps in this particular, Bishop suggested, came about because “most people cannot accept things, I guess — can’t bear to feel grateful,” but rather chose to be “spiteful.”

Shaking off this upsetting subject, Bishop assured her aunt that for them, these new diversions were balm: “there is ‘Monica,’ and this job,” and she herself was actually working, “trying to get two books done in 1961.”

Even with her own relatives’ bad behaviour, Bishop closed with “Give my love to everyone” (one puts up with a lot in family) and urged her beloved aunt to “keep well and write soon.”

The next correspondence from Bishop were in the form of two postcards, one in March and one in April. They will comprise the next post.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 81: A Sensitive Matter

The next subject Bishop broached in her 30 January 1961 letter is a sensitive matter, brought up to give Grace the context for why it would prove difficult to have the Naudins visit Samambaia in the near future (after all Bishop’s talk about wanting to host them there). Bishop could have explained the situation briefly and left it at that, but she decided to give her aunt the details, some of which I will not include in this post.

Before launching into the story, Bishop wrote, “we wish you were here visiting us now.” One of the main reasons for this wish was because “there is a baby in the house again.” Their “proper Bostonian friend, Mary Morse, went and adopted one [a baby, that is].” Mary was the person Bishop has supplanted in Lota’s heart, yet Morse lived nearby all along and had been building a house “down below us.” This house was just “being finished,” though it would not “be ready [yet] for another month, at least.” As a result, Mary and the new baby were “living with us.” Whatever the complex relationship was among these three women, proximity remained.

The long paragraph that followed this set up is a detailed account of how 47-year-old Morse, “after talking about it for years,” finally decided to adopt a child, something she had “been negotiating … for ages.” Bishop explained to Grace that “the laws are like those in the US — you can’t adopt legally until you’re over 50, unless you are married, and Mary is an old maid.”

American film-maker Barbara Hammer’s documentary about Lota, Elizabeth and Mary (“Reaching for the Moon”) offers an interpretation of the process of this adoption. Some of it fits with Bishop’s account in this letter, some of it does not. Since this child, who was named “Mary Stearns Morse,” is still living (indeed, my age), I am uncomfortable about including Bishop’s account of her origins. Bishop told Grace that because of Mary’s age (under the legal limit), “this baby was located through various intermediaries and no one knew any one else’s name, etc.”

Hammer’s film shows Lota (and Elizabeth, if I remember correctly — it is some years since I saw the film) making the trip to pick up the baby directly from the mother (who is portrayed quite  differently from the person Bishop describes). Bishop wrote that they did go “down to Rio to see her for Mary, because we knew that even if the baby had four eyes Mary wouldn’t be able to resist her.” But she noted that “a friend of ours” had already picked up the baby and had her “checked out by one doctor.” When Lota and Elizabeth took possession of her, they “took her to our doctor, for a final check up.” All was well. Bishop declared her to be “a darling baby” between two and three months old. Her direct description of this infant is curiously expansive: “not pretty, but cunning; very bright, healthy, fat, and smiling, poor little thing.” Their doctor declared: “She has the best things of all — good temper,” because she hadn’t fussed when she was “prodded and poked” during the examination; rather: “she laughed.”

Lota and Elizabeth “drove her back to Mary, in the pouring rain, and announced ‘Here’s Monica’.”
(Mary Morse and Monica, 1961)
The next part gives an account of the baby’s mother and the unfortunate circumstances that required her to “give away” such a “darling.” Their Rio friend (the intermediary) “saw the mother (we didn’t want to) and said she was absolutely broken hearted about giving her up.” Bishop said it was obvious the infant “has been loved and well taken care of.” One can only feel sad for this mother.

Bishop knew Grace would understand the sad circumstances (akin to some of the situations she undoubtedly saw during her long nursing career delivering babies) and would be interested in the nature and well being of this little adoptee. Bishop reported that Monica “has been no trouble at all — sleeps like an angel, eats like a horse, wakes up laughing, and only cries when she’s wet or hungry.” She noted that this little person “act[ed] unhappy and frightened for about ten minutes every day at six — isn’t it strange?” Bishop had her own speculation as to why, based on the mother’s circumstances.

Finally, she declared Monica to be “a lucky child” because “Mary will adore her and she will be moderately rich, and get a good education, etc.”

I have omitted many of the more intimate details of this account, but clearly Bishop wanted Grace to know about this important development in their lives. She also told this story to her aunt because it explained why it would be hard to have all the Naudins visit: “Mary is in one of the two guest rooms and uses the extra bathroom for her and all the baby things.” Having more company right then would have been too much.

The next post will bring this heady letter to a close and hint at another, even bigger development unfolding in their lives in the first days of 1961.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 80: More family talk

After its long opening paragraph, packed with thoughts about “fats,” “Natural Childbirth,” and “atom-splitting,” Bishop likely paused a moment before beginning the next, much briefer paragraph in her 30 January 1961 letter. This paragraph was clearly in response to things Grace had written about the long vigil with Eleanor Boomer Shore, held with Aunt Mabel (Eleanor’s mother) and Hazel Boomer Snow (Eleanor’s sister). Every family has issues, tensions and problems, and when illness and death happen, family dynamics can intensify (for better or worse). Grace was an eminently practical, capable and experienced nurse, a no-nonsense person with a keen sense of humour. She was unflappable, which was one of the reasons why Bishop loved and respected her. Whatever Grace had written about the tense and sad circumstances during this vigil,  Bishop’s response reveals that even unflappable Grace might have reached her limit.

The paragraph began with a sentence ripe with incredulity: “How CAN M[abel] and H[azel] be so stupid!” Bishop was “reading that page of your letter.” Whatever prompted Grace’s account, it appears to have had something to do with what happened to Ellie. Bishop continued: “These people who have to blame anything and everything on someone else.” Bishop immediately tempered this outburst by conceding that “poor old Aunt M, I suppose, really never did have much of a chance did she.” Bishop acknowledged that Mabel had “started out with a grudge against life (and had a right to, then) and never got over it.” Hints of the circumstances that might have engendered such feelings in Mabel can be found in Bishop’s memoir about Arthur Boomer and his family, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” Bishop concluded, “It takes a much bigger person than she is to overcome such handicaps.”

“Poor old Aunt M” sounds rather like poor old Aunt F, with frustrations and cares that weighed them down and from which they could not rise above. I suspect most of us know someone similar. These qualities and states of being did not mean Bishop severed contact with these relatives, found on both sides of her family; quite the opposite, she continued to connect with them directly (in person and in correspondence) right to the end of her and their lives. Over time, Bishop achieved perspective and gained some compassion for these problematic relatives, perhaps because she lived at a distance from them for most of her life. This distance was both a protection against being too affected, but it also allowed her to see them more as themselves rather than as simply agents in her own troubles. Bishop herself tried not to “blame anything and everything on someone else” for her own issues, even if some might argue convincingly that she had reason to. Bishop knew she, too, had “handicaps” to “overcome.”

After this commentary with its forbearing yet ironic conclusions, Bishop must have paused again, then markedly shifted gears. One of the subjects discussed for some time between her and Grace was maple syrup. Grace must have made some recommendation in her letter about how to store it (remember, Bishop pleaded with her aunt for some advice). Bishop responded to that advice by saying that she had “sterilized all” the remaining syrup, “just in time, I think — and sealed up about 2/3rds of it to keep in the refrigerator.” She felt that her actions meant all was “fine” with this treasured commodity. She noted that “for lunch today we are having watercress soup … and then fried mash with maple syrup.” Bishop observed that the watercress was doing well because “it has been raining so damned long.” She also clarified that the mash was “more or less a Brazilian dish … called angu” on which was used “ordinary syrup, or cinnamon and sugar.” They were getting a good run out of the maple syrup because of Bishop’s frugality and careful attention to its storage.

After this report, Bishop turned again to another perennial subject, her efforts to connect with Elizabeth Naudin. Bishop noted that she had been in Rio for three days “last week but I didn’t get to see E.” They were “going down tomorrow” and Bishop was hopeful that she would “see her this week.” She told Grace that her cousin had been sans “maid last time I saw her and pretty confined.” (Elizabeth Naudin was likely pregnant at this time; their third child was born in Brazil.) In spite of all the frustrations from the previous year, Bishop kept trying to connect and told her aunt, “I want to take her out sight-seeing as soon as she has someone to leave the children with.” She had learned that the Naudins had again gone to “Terezopolis [sic] to visit” Ray’s sister, which she imagined “they really like … much better than coming here,” but she still wanted “to have her up here for a week if possible when the heat gets too much for her.” Samambaia was “always pretty cool,” unlike Rio where it could feel like “hell … at this time.” The desire and intention were still active in Bishop to keep connected to her cousin, but as this paragraph came to a close, Bishop observed, “but now I’m not sure that I’ll be able to have her after all,” concluding with an “I’ll explain —” This dash was another pause before a launch into another long and even denser paragraph of explanation, part of which will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A couple of interesting links

Geographer Bob Maher continues to write interesting posts on his blog: The Ernest Blair Experiment. I have subscribed to this blog and just now received the most recent post. Bob is interested in Nova Scotia writer Ernest Buckler and is a member of the literary society formed some years ago to present events and activities about Buckler and, more generally, local and NS writers. Click here to see Bob's most recent post, which also mentions Elizabeth Bishop. We have been having an interesting exchange about Bishop. Bob wondered if Bishop was aware of Buckler and his work (the were almost exact contemporaries and they do share initials!). As far as I knew, Bishop was not aware of Buckler, but I asked Canadian literary critic and scholar David Staines, who knew Bishop at Harvard in the 1970s. Although he is a Buckler fan, he couldn't remember them talking about him during their conversations all those decades ago. Too bad.

Recently, writer Gabrielle Bellot wrote a lengthy piece about Bishop for The New York Review of Books, focused on an early prose piece Bishop wrote, "On Being Alone." Click here to read Bellot's thoughtful essay about the nature of solitude and loneliness.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 79: A new year commences

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was dated 30 January 1961, the year already well underway. I am particularly interested in this year because it is when I was born — as was Miriam Sutherland, the youngest child of Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland. Indeed, Miriam was born just two days before me in early June. Miriam’s advent was of keen interest to Bishop, as this letter reveals.

Bishop also turned 50 in this year (indeed, her birthday was just a week after this letter was written), a milestone for anyone and she had her views about it. So, Bishop was herself particularly interested in births and birthdays in 1961.
(Me and Miriam Sutherland, mid-1990s.
Miriam is wearing her favourite Rita MacNeil top.
We are looking at the photos that comprise part of
the Bulmer family fonds at Acadia University Archives.)

As this first, long letter of the new year to her aunt shows, there was a good deal happening in Bishop’s life — significant events and changes that advanced in positive and negative ways through the decade to come. Some of these events and changes are hinted at in this letter and will emerge in the next few posts.

This letter began with the usual acknowledgment of an epistle received from Grace, dated 13 January (so, there was some delay in Bishop’s response). Bishop offered the assessment that “we lose about every other one,” (letter, that is), a frustrating unreliability. Bishop asked “if Phyllis got one to Aunt Mabel to forward for me.” — Phyllis, being more stationary than the two older women, acted as a forwarding service.

The gaps in/losses of letters meant that Bishop “didn’t realize you’d been in Boston three whole months,” but being up in the mountains and occupied with their own busy life also meant she lost “track of time here terribly.” Bishop again acknowledged the “tough stretch, all right” that Grace had been through, not only supporting Eleanor Boomer Shore in her illness and death, but also her sister-in-law Mabel (Eleanor’s mother), who was also clearly on site for this trouble. The difficult time involved, in Grace’s words and Bishop’s echo, “Yes, just plain tension (and Aunt M is great at producing that).”

Grace must have reported the affect of all this tension because Bishop acknowledged how it “can give one High B[lood] P[ressure], I understand.” Grace had also contracted a “sore throat” and must have been dealing with a diagnosis of high cholesterol because Bishop, ever interested in following all things medical, noted the “great deal of excitement now about different kinds of fats — milk, butter, and animal fats, etc.” In Brazil, she noted, they “hardly get any [of these fats] here,” but acknowledged Grace’s temptations with “such good milk and cream and butter.” Her advice: “Watch out!”

Finally, in response to Grace’s heath report, Bishop urged her aunt to “please please keep well!”

The big news from Grace, however, concerned Phyllis, who was well into her pregnancy (as was my own mother) in January 1961. Bishop yearned again for “some snapshots of the little boys,” that is, Phyllis’s sons Wallace and David. Obstetrics nurse Grace reported in her letter, clearly for a second time, that Phyllis needed to have a Caesarian to deliver this third baby. Bishop remarked, “how stupid of me, I should have remembered.” Bishop noted that she was “all set to send her a wonderful book about ‘Natural Childbirth’! — glad I didn’t.” Bishop suspected Grace might “know about” this book and remarked that “a friend in Rio has just had her third that way, in three years of marriage, and apparently can’t wait to go right on — never feels a thing, she says.” Bishop then told her aunt  that she and Lota “went to see a good French movie on the subject, too — a marvellous movie, really.”

It is rather curious that these two middle-aged women, who never had children of their own, should have been so interested in childbirth. Bishop went on to explain her position: “I think it is much more important than the atom-splitting and wish they’d leave the poor old atom alone and concentrate on helping all these millions of women who have gone through unnecessary hell for thousands of year….” Bishop wasn’t done with advocating for “natural childbirth” with her aunt, who had probably delivered hundreds of babies in her long career. Bishop averred that “it [natural childbirth] is NOT a fad, you know” and explained how she had “many friends with whom it worked perfectly.” Why Bishop would have thought her aunt didn’t understand this particular birthing process is curious. She urged Grace “to see it demonstrated or attend one of the classes they give now” because she was quite sure her aunt would “find it fascinating — and very cheering-up, too!”

All the above subjects, thoughts, reports were contained in the dense, opening paragraph of this letter. In the long-ish gap since her last letter to Grace, Bishop had been storing up a great deal to write, and her aunt’s letter triggered a small flood of thoughts. Before getting into her own news, Bishop continued to address more family matters after this initial outpouring. They will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 78: 1960 winds down

Bishop’s last letter of 1960 to her aunt was soon done and ready to mail. The final matters were a mélange of quick updates and observations, indicative of her haste and a desire to get her words and a gift to Grace before the holidays.

Bishop reported that she had seen Elizabeth Naudin “a week before” they had gone to Cabo Frio (but since that was just after her 30 October letter, it was old news — though not to Grace). Bishop had gone to Rio for a couple of days and had made contact in person because “she has no phone now” and “Ray was away for three weeks.” She supposed he was “back about now.” She was planning to “call him at Otis,”* but was stymied because “our telephone was struck by lightning — again — Saturday!” After it was repaired, she would try to reach him. She noted that “we have been having terrible and spectacular storms.”**
Once again she brought up the maple syrup, which she called “marvellous,” and confirmed she “used currents twice.” She was concerned about the syrup, “afraid of its spoiling” because “it is damp here.” She asked Grace how to store it: “bottling all I could very tightly, and perhaps keeping it in the refrigerator?” She told her aunt that at one point “it did pop a bit when I opened it, and I was afraid it had fermented, but it hadn’t.” She had decided to keep “the cover off — in my driest cupboard.” Not at all sure her strategy was right and not wanting to lose any of the treasure, she pleaded, “please tell me what you do.”

Since “‘Leontina’ our ugly maid, poor thing, has come to call me to lunch,” Bishop hastily concluded “with much love” and hoped she would “find a letter from you at the P.O.”

This brief epistle didn’t get in its envelope until after lunch because at the bottom of the page yet more nearly indecipherable scribble apologizing for a stain on the page: “I turned the page over to go down to lunch & I see I have put it in a puddle — of Coca Cola, I think!” Perhaps this “mess” happened because the maid had been “giggling over my shoulder watching me type —!” as she was summoned to lunch.

Thus ended 1960, with a stain on the page, a rather Bishopesque turn: an “untidy activity.”

The next post will commence 1961.

*Note: Ray Naudin worked for the Otis Elevator Company his whole career. Otis was founded by Elisha Graves Otis in the 1850s. It still operates.
(The founder in question.)
**Note: Bishop saw many spectacular lightning storms in Brazil. She even was indirectly hit by lightning once. Lightning images can be found in her poems and stories.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 77: Coming and going

The year 1960 was winding down. Bishop’s last letter to Grace was dated “December 6th,” just over a month after the last one. She had clearly not heard from her aunt. Scribbled across the top of the page was the query: “Did you get my letter? — the one with the check? — mailed Oct. 30th.”

After “Dear Aunt Grace,” she launched right in with a slightly bemused, exasperated “I keep losing track of you…” The last letter Bishop had from Grace had held the news “about Ellie’s being sick, and in the hospital.” Bishop had not known where to send her October reply because Grace’s plans had been “rather unsettled.”

Bishop speculated that “something [from Grace] must have got lost since then.” This letter was prompted by a desire to know “how things are and where you are.” To ensure Grace got this letter, Bishop decided to send it “C/O Phyllis, since surely she’ll know [your]” whereabouts. Besides, “the mails in her part of the world are more reliable.” Wherever Grace was just then, Bishop hoped she was “all right.”

After this slightly concerned preliminary, Bishop reported that she and Lota had just gone to Cabo Frio again “and will be going back over Christmas, I think.”* Being away before their traditional holiday time was because of Lota, who, as Bishop observed, “is just getting so fed up with her problems here.” The list of issues was significant: “a big real-estate development”**; “two law-suits”; and problems with her “adopted son behaving like a perfect demon.” In addition, Lota was suffering from “horrible neuralgia in the back of the neck.” This condition was so debilitating that Bishop sometimes had “to pull her out of bed in the mornings.” Bishop laid the cause of this condition on “all just worry.” The trouble with her son meant “we haven’t even seen the children for months and that just breaks her heart.” In the midst of all these cares and concerns, Bishop felt Lota “just has to get away for a while.”

Cabo Frio was a balm for their troubled hearts and minds, but the getting away was to continue, even after the holiday. Bishop reported that on “January 2nd, — we are going to stay with a friend in Ouro Preto [sic] again.” This friend was Lilli Correia de Araújo. Bishop and Lota had first visited Ouro Prêto in 1953 and had gone back a number of times in the interim. Bishop had mentioned this place to Grace before but reminded her aunt that it was “a little colonial town in the interior, a long day’s drive from here.” Indeed, it was in the state of Minas Gerais, 300 miles from Rio.
(View of Ouro Prêto, 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
Since she and Lota would be “coming and going” a lot, and since Bishop was unsure where Grace would be during the holiday, she decided “to send this small Christmas gift now,” hoping it would “‘come in handy’ wherever you are.”

This short, somewhat hurried letter wound down with a few updates about matters from the 30 October letter. These will comprise the next post.

* Note: As it turned out, Bishop and Lota did not return to Cabo Frio that Christmas, but stayed in Rio (Millier 317)

** Note: It is uncertain what this development was. During this year’s Christmas holiday, Carlos Lacerda, a close friend of Lota and the new governor of the state of Guanabara, visited them and asked Lota to head up “the development of a large piece of fill on Guanabara Bay,” what became Parque do Flamengo. (Millier 317) Perhaps they had wind of this request earlier in the month and Lota was trying to decide if she would take it on. Or, the real-estate could have been the selling and developing of the land she owned at Samambaia, something mentioned in previous letters and something on-going for some time.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sorrowful Anniversary

In the darkest hours just before midnight on 2 September 1998, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed off the south coast of Nova Scotia, killing everyone on board. This tragedy sent shock waves across the province and across the world. I was living in Halifax at the time and the next day, when the full scope of the sorrow became apparent, I walked to Point Pleasant Park, profoundly shaken by what had happened, just to stare out into the Atlantic and try to comprehend. The poem below emerged from my thoughts.

Already twenty years have passed, but its affects still haunt all those who lost loved ones and those from the area who went out immediately onto the water to search for survivors. While this event has nothing to do with Elizabeth Bishop, still, she and her family were directly affected by the horrific tragedy of the Halifax Explosion, which marked its centenary in December 2017. While Bishop’s mother, who was at the Nova Scotia Hospital when the explosion occurred, did not die; she was seriously destabilized and was never the same afterwards.* This post is just a small way to honour all victims of violent tragedy. The quotation of the title comes from Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The photograph was taken by my younger sister more or less on the same spot where the poem emerged.
“Out of the Ninth-Month Midnight”

In memoriam, Flight 111 (2 September 1998)

Late afternoon, wind off the land.
Mountainous clouds backlit by sun.
The water is quicksilver.
Systaltic ─ now and then, now and then.
The harbour is a heart, whole
and shattered, held together,
torn apart by its own pulse ─
the circle of sun, the season,
the millennium.
Suddenly, two quivers of light
as though far away has epitomized.
Plovers, a pair, semi-palmated,
winter-ready, rare
on this bit of beach at the Point.
My gaze caught on their bright white
airborne bellies;
I follow them to the shoreline.
They become stones.
Have they come to answer the question
I ask of the Atlantic?
They have come to rest in the midst
of their imperative ─
the space between them
is the moment between contractions
when eternity relaxes
and the chambers of the world
fill with silence.

With my binoculars I see their dark
brown eyes keeping watch,
the single dark breastbands,
the nearly all dark beaks.
So still, so alert
they are perfectly aware of survival’s
fragility. They simply know
the temperature of tomorrow.
It is me who holds us
inside a compass,
a dial; but there is no circumference
except what I need to cradle
my desperate longing.
Time is broken and mended
in every breath, and the ocean
ticks strangely in the blood....
Here, on a September littoral,
where late afternoon sun slants seaward,
with a warm wind blowing off the land,
on a long journey between now and then,
these two together pause
because life and death will not.

(Photo by Donna Barry)

*Note: Coincidentally, the first conference about Bishop held in Nova Scotia happened in September 1998 at Acadia University in Wolville. Its title was: Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place. Memory and place took on a new meaning for many people earlier that month with the tragedy of the Swiss Air crash.


Friday, August 31, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 76: Doing what you want to

Bishop concluded her 29 October 1960 letter to her aunt with a series of thoughts, questions and comments about family. Before doing so, she reassured Grace that all the “things staying in the Customs in the hot weather” survived the delay “in fine shape.” Grace must have expressed some concern because Bishop noted she had been “worried, too”; but all was well.

Grace had also told her niece that she had given up “making the mats and quilts,” something Bishop expressed regret to hear. Rug hooking and quilting were long-standing domestic activities for the women in Bishop’s maternal family, going back to her great-grandmother. Bishop herself owned some of their creations. The other needle art that was common among them, especially Bishop’s mother, was embroidery, which Bishop told Grace she had tried to start doing herself, “in my old age.” She reported that she worked on “two really beautiful Danish designs for two pillows — but very shortly I turned it over to Lota.” Needle and thread (or floss in this case) were not for Bishop, but Lota had “learned all about embroidery and such in the convent.” Instead, she returned to “painting pictures as relaxation,” an art and pastime Lota fostered by buying Bishop “oils — I’ve always used water colors before.” Painting pictures was also a common activity in Bishop’s maternal family. Perhaps telling her aunt of this decision nudged Grace in that direction. Grace herself took up painting in her late 70s and early 80s.
 (One of Bishop's paintings. A Nova Scotia scene.)
Grace’s letters undoubtedly were filled with reports and stories about family and relatives, news of which Bishop was always eager to hear. The most recent letter must have contained an update about Uncle George Shepherdson. It prompted Bishop to observe, perhaps with some sarcasm, that he “ought to be given some sort of award by the Masons for all that fidelity all these years.” One of his faithful duties was “stoking the wood furnace,” one assumes in the hall where they had meetings. Bishop observed that she “hate[e] to think of him” doing this task, “but, as you say — ‘no one can do anything with him’.” Bishop’s view was that “one just has to let people do what they want to do.”

Taking this view of things, Bishop felt that it helped her “get along better with poor old Aunt F[lorence] than the other cousins.” Conceding the fact that she only saw Florence “in very short stretches,” she could afford “to let her do what she wants … it doesn’t bother me if she wants to drink too much before dinner! Why not, at 85 … I think I’d just let her guzzle!” Could it be that this approach is one Bishop hoped others who saw her only in “short stretches” might take with her?
(One of Grace's paintings. Great Village. AUA.)
This long busy late October letter began to wind down and Bishop knew Grace was on the move again: “Please let me know your next move and address.” Grace was always tending to family and Bishop was “afraid it is a sad time for you,” because of Ellie Boomer Shore’s illness. Bishop asked her aunt to “give my love to Aunt Mabel [Ellie’s mother],” who she speculated must be “almost as old as Aunt F.”

Urging Grace to “write soon,” she concluded with a final “thank you and thank you for the lovely presents,” noting that she had “locked up the syrup. I hate to do that, but I found the cook licking her fingers suspiciously, in the kitchen.” She really was not prepared to share this treasured northern treat!

Just over a month passed before Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, on 6 December 1960, which will be the subject of the next post.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 75: Currants and chocolate

To shake off her preoccupation with the Naudins, Bishop quickly turned to the rest of the items Grace had sent. She had already waxed eloquently about the maple syrup in her 29 October 1960 letter (as well as in the previous one), so she picked up on the second item: currants, which “look wonderful — and so cheap in Montreal.” This latter comment confirms that Grace had been with her sister Mary (who lived in this city), when the items were assembled for the Naudins to transport (though by now, Grace was elsewhere, as the items had sat in customs, if you remember, for weeks).

Bishop was going to savour this treat, too; indeed, engaging in delayed gratification. She stored them in their “bags in a tight tin to keep to use at Christmas time.” The third item, however, was going to be indulged in immediately: “This afternoon I think I’ll make a chocolate cake.” After an ellipsis she went on to explain that the coming week held two holidays: “All Soul’s Day and Memorial Day” on “Tuesday and Wednesday,” which meant they were “bound to have unexpected or unannounced company,” because “most people are taking Monday off, too.” Bishop explained further that “All Soul’s is our Halloween — of course — All Hallows Evening.”

Though Grace had bought the currants in Montreal, Bishop noticed that they “came from Australia.” This multinational convergence prompted her to report that “last night it turned cold again suddenly,” which saw her “lighting a fire with a Canadian paper bag, with matches from Russia, in Brazil.”

Bishop included in this letter a ‘check which I think … should just about cover” the cost of the items, flouting what Grace undoubtedly wanted to be gifts: “although you deserve,” Bishop noted, “ten times as much … for all your trouble.”

Returning to that third item (chocolate), Bishop observed that chocolate “comes from Brazil and should be good, but it isn’t” (that is, the kind she could get in Brazil, not the kind Grace had sent). She qualified that “the powder kind is all right,:” but “the tablet kind just won’t melt.” And a baker needed to “use so much [chocolate] everything gets very dry.”

She went on to report that “raisins are fearfully expensive now.” Occasionally, they could get “Argentine raisins, but they have to be de-seeded — a hell of a job!” So, the currants were most welcome as she wrote, “I never saw a currant here.” She and Lota had tried (apparently unsuccessfully) “to smuggle in a bush or two.” They thought the weather on their mountain might be conducive for them to grow, but Bishop was doubtful “without frost.”

Even with the currants stored safely away for the next big holiday, Bishop did report that probably she would use some of them “to make a very good kind of stuffed pancake,” something done for “special company.” The stuffing contained an “egg, sugar, bread crumbs, currants, and cream cheese.” These ingredients were “all beaten up” and the pancakes were stuffed and baked. This delicacy was “lots of work, but for someone we like very much I make something fancy once in awhile.”
(These are strawberry stuffed with cream cheese
pancakes, but you get the idea.)
Having dispelled her frustrations by writing about one of her favourite subjects (food), Bishop concluded her letter by turning back to other family — the subject of the next post.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sable Island Institute and Herb Barry’s museum

In 1951 Elizabeth Bishop visited Sable Island, the place where her great-grandfather had been shipwrecked in the 1860s. She spent a couple of days there. In 2008, I had the great privilege of visiting Sable Island myself, thanks to Zoe Lucas. I travelled out there on a beautiful May day with Zoe and writer Janet Barkhouse. Zoe, a long-time resident of the island, and I connected because of Bishop’s long ago visit. Bishop had intended to write an article for The New Yorker about Sable Island, but it never happened. Brazil intervened.

Recently, Lucas and a group of passionate supporters and protectors of Sable Island established the Sable Island Institute. Even more recently, a wonderful new website for thisgroup went live.

(Part of Herb's museum. Photo by Brenda Barry.)
Between 2008 and today, Zoe shared some of Sable Island artefacts from her own collection with my elderly father, who has had a long-standing interest in the island and its famed horses. He created a nice display of this material and has been sharing it with visitors for some time. Last year, Janet Barkhouse visited my father’s little Sable Island museum and she wrote a delightful article which now appears on the institute’swebsite.
 (Zoe Lucas and Herb Barry, 2016. Photo by Brenda Barry.)
(The guest book. Photo by Brenda Barry.)

Friday, August 24, 2018

A couple of interesting blog posts

Recently, I received word about two blogs whose authors have recently visited Great Village. The first is American writer Miriam Sagen. She and her husband Richard Feldman (also a writer), visited Great Village and other parts of Nova Scotia in late June. Click here to see Miriam’s post about her encounter with the EB House.

(Miriam Sagen, from her blog.)

The next post is from a blog kept by Bob Maher, who I feel somehow I should know, as he seems to be situated in Annapolis County in the Annapolis Valley, where I now live. He visited Great Village earlier this week and visited St. James Church. Click here to see his informative post about what he discovered.

Thanks to both of these folks for making note of their time in the village.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

My but How Time Flies --

-- for it was seven years ago today that we were in the midst of EB100 festivities in Great Village, and CTV was interviewing Sandra Barry and Moya Pacey --

Monday, August 20, 2018

Film-maker Steven Allardi at the EB House

On Sunday, 19 August, American film-maker Steven Allardi visited the Elizabeth Bishop House to do get some film footage. Steven is a video producer with Poetry In America, a series of online courses about poetry, as well as a program of the same name for PBS. Steven was in touch last week to say that these courses cover many of Bishop’s poems, but they will be highlighting “At the Fishhouses” in the near future. Steven has his own Nova Scotia connection, having a summer place in the province.

Elizabeth Bishop House steward Laurie Gunn welcomed Steven who spent several hours at the house. We’ll be asking Steven to keep us informed about this project. Here are a couple of photos Laurie took of Steven in action.
(In the dining room.)
 (In the kitchen.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 74: Another perspective

As frustrated as Bishop was with the elusiveness of her cousin, she still could not let go of trying to connect with Elizabeth and Ray Naudin. After opening her 29 October 1960 letter to Grace with a response to her other cousin Ellie’s struggle with cancer, Bishop turned yet again to an update of the ongoing saga with the Naudins. She had told Grace that finally a date had been set for their visit to the house at Samambaia, but her acknowledgement of the maple syrup and other gifts hinted at the no-show she was about to explain.

This long awaited visit was to have happened “yesterday.” Bishop had arranged for “Mary Morse’s architect, a good friend of ours, a very nice chap named Ricardo,”* to drive the Naudins up, which helped also with the transportation of the gifts, “convenient” for them. After the tell-tale ellipsis, Bishop wrote, “Well, it seemed they had colds, or E had had a cold and the children had colds, so she didn’t want to bring them or leave them.” Once again the visit was “postponed … until next Saturday.”

Grace herself had heard from Elizabeth Naudin, either directly or via Mary, because immediately after this announcement Bishop declared (you can hear the exasperated tone): “I am glad you say she is having a wonderful time here — and I gather she is”; but Bishop was clearly put out by the delays and excuses. Who wouldn’t be?

Bishop knew about her cousin’s luck “with servants” and the “wonderful big apartment right overlooking the ocean, etc.” They had had enough communication for “E” to tell her cousin that “she never went near the kitchen, just let the cook put it on the table!” Bishop hazarded the guess that her cousin “has never lived in such luxury.” Even in the midst of the “fearfull [sic]” heat in Rio and the dire water shortage, the Naudins seemed unscathed, “she has been lucky about that, too, I think — they never were without water.” Unlike Lota’s lawyer who “had to come up to their summer place here with his twelve children, not a drop of water, in a heat of 100% in Rio.” All Bishop could think about in this was “all the dirty clothes piling up and up” with that many kids, some of them “tiny.”

In the midst of this account, to give Grace some context for her mystification, you can here the unspoken thought: If she’s having such a good time of it, why can’t she make the effort to visit me?”
(Bishop at Casa Mariana -- not the right time,
but it conveys the idea of waiting.)
As if to shake off this train of thought, Bishop returned to Ricardo, who had arrived solo “with the syrup and the currents and chocolate” (a complete list of the gifts). In contrast to others, this friend is “awfully nice, sociable.” He told them he felt obliged to pay a visit to the Naudins “when he went to pick the things up.” Bishop reported that Ricardo “liked Ray very much” and offered the observation that Ray “is awfully likable.” Then a critique, which Bishop gingerly added: “but after hemming and hawing a bit he said he found E ‘cold’ — which is just my own impression, too — (Don’t repeat this to Mary!)”

Bishop quickly added that “after you talk to her for an hour or so, she does warm up a little — but it is hard going.” Bishop had wondered in previous letters if her cousin was “shy,” but now that someone disinterested had met her and noticed the marked reserve, Bishop (who was herself quite shy and reserved) ventured, “she just doesn’t seem a bit  interested in other people, and not very much in things — outside her own immediate affairs.” Being an almost obsessively curious person, this seeming lack of interest puzzled Bishop.

To see some images of Elizabeth Naudin and her family, click these links:

Finally, Ricardo’s assessment provided Bishop with some relief because she “had thought perhaps it was all my fault.” That someone “so friendly and easy” would feel similarly helped Bishop let go of her obsession to connect: “I’m not going to worry about it — and God knows I’ve tried!” adding in her scrawl, “to be friendly.” Ah, family.

What follows this update is further response to those gifts, which clearly did as much to mitigate Bishop’s bewilderment as Ricardo’s assessment of the situation. That will comprise the next post.


*Note: I did a little searching on the internet but could not find out who Ricardo is. I found a contemporary Brazilian architect named Ricardo Canton, but not the historical one. If anyone can tell me who he is, I’d be most grateful.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Tickets Now Available

Tickets are now available for the Wunderdog Theatre production of Sarah Ruhl's play Dear Elizabeth, which is being performed during the Vancouver Fringe Festival, September 6-16, 2018.  Click here for more details.