“The favorite memorial for small children was a low rectangle of the same coarse white marble as the larger stones, but with a little lamb recumbent on top. I adored these lambs, and counted them and caressed them and sat on them. Some were almost covered by dry, bright-gold lichen, some with green and gold and gray mixed together, some were almost lost among the long grass and roses and blueberries and teaberries.” (Elizabeth Bishop, “Gwendolyn,” The Collected Prose.)
My first visit to Great Village was in the late summer of 1990. I had lived most of my life in Nova Scotia, but had never visited that part of the province. At Acadia University in the early 1980s, one of my roommates was from nearby Londonderry, but that was as close as I ever got to the area.
Like many other Bishop pilgrims, I went that first visit clutching my copies of The Complete Poems, 1929-1979 and The Collected Prose. It was easy to locate many of the buildings and places Bishop wrote about, especially the school, the churches, Hill’s store, Uncle Arthur’s house, the filling station (in 1990 it was still ESSO). And, of course, her childhood home. I knew by this point who lived in the house: Hazel Bowers, an elderly woman who was the widow of Norman Bowers, the step-son of Grace Bulmer Bowers. I knocked on the front door, which is done in Nova Scotia only if you are being very formal or tentative (or if you are selling something) — back doors are the way most people enter homes in the Maritimes. Hazel answered and invited me in. She was most definitely aware of Elizabeth Bishop. Indeed, she had some of Bishop’s books in her home. She had met Bishop on a number of occasions. I did not stay long. I visited her two more times with her step-niece, Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland, but I did not get to know Hazel, who died in 1996, well into her nineties.
The other thing I did that day was go to the Mahon Cemetery, in search of the Bulmer family grave site. The cemetery is at the top of Layton’s Hill. As the car crested the hill there was a field of wheat or barley glowing golden in the afternoon sunlight and the waters of Cobequid Bay off in the distance were the very colour Bishop describes in “Gwendolyn”: “dreaming lavender-red.”
The cemetery is well back off the highway, at the end of a narrow dirt lane. Turning into this little road, two elegant old houses sit on either side and two rows of large maples arc a canopy across the sky. Driving beneath them, it feels, quite literally, as if you are going back in time.
The cemetery itself is rimmed by conifers on the bay side and open fields on the highway side. It is a quiet and still place. Bishop wrote, “It is as if evening were always in the graveyard.” If you have ever gone searching in cemeteries, even small ones, you know that it can be oddly difficult to find a particular stone without directions. However, I found the Bulmer grave site fairly quickly. Many things are interesting about this site, but one of the most interesting is two tiny heart-shaped stones for the infant children of Arthur and Mabel Bulmer. These infants (a girl and a boy) died in 1909 and 1915. The boy is the subject of Bishop’s haunting poem “First Death in Nova Scotia.”
Graveyards are fascinating places and where Bishop is concerned, the Mahon Cemetery is an important site. Her great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Black Hutchinson Gourley is buried there (Mary’s first husband, Robert, was shipwrecked off Sable Island in the mid-1860s). Bishop’s grandparents, William and Elizabeth Bulmer, are buried there. Her Aunt Maude Bulmer Shepherdson. Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mabel Bulmer. Aunt Grace is nearby (and a number of Grace’s in-laws, including Hazel Bowers, are buried there). There is also a memorial stone for Bishop’s cousin Eleanor Bulmer Shores, who is buried in the United States. These people were the centre of Bishop’s maternal family collective.
During a much later visit to the cemetery (years later, in fact), I was exploring a far corner of the yard and located, totally by accident, a single broken stone marking two more infant deaths: the first child of William and Elizabeth (Lizzie on the stone) Bulmer and the first child of John Robert and Charlotte (Lottie on the stone) Hutchinson, one of Bishop’s great-uncles. Though there is no discernable date on the stone, these infants must have died close in time. The Bulmer child was stillborn in 1872.
Besides all these family members, the Mahon Cemetery is filled with people Bishop knew as a child, whose names populate her memoirs and stories: Chisholms, Peppards, Spencers, Hills, DesBrisays, MacLachlans, MacNeils, and on and on. Perhaps one of the most important people in this communal collective was Gwendolyn Patriquin.
On that first visit I already knew that the little girl in Bishop’s story “Gwendolyn” was a real person. In the story Bishop calls her Gwendolyn Appletree. Gwendolyn died at the age of nine in 1922. I had come across her obituary in the Truro Daily News. Besides finding the Bulmer grave site, I very much wanted to find Gwendolyn’s. However, that first day I looked and looked without any luck, and then it was time to leave.
A few weeks later I returned to Great Village determined to find Gwendolyn’s grave. It was a cool, unsettled October afternoon, but there were still crickets chirping in the quiet cemetery. I parked the car and got out. I had several choices where to start looking and decided to take the path directly in front of me. I walked only a few yards when I saw it. Indeed, it was barely 10 yards from the Bulmer grave site. How could I have missed it that first time?
Gwendolyn is buried there with her parents. Also etched on the stone is a memorial for one of her older brothers, Clyde Patriquin, who was killed in World War I, only a few months before the Armistice.
Many years later, after I became involved with the Elizabeth Bishop House, one day while pruning the little rose bushes out front, Arthur Chisholm stopped by. He handed me a large velvet-covered book and said that someone had left it at the museum in Truro and that the archivist there thought it might be something we would like to have at the house. It was a copy of the Vassarian for 1934, Elizabeth Bishop’s graduation yearbook, for which she was editor-in-chief. Well, I was thrilled, of course! Like graveyards, yearbooks are endlessly fascinating — a visible gathering of a community, a way of learning about people and their relationships with each other. I began leafing through it immediately, looking for the pages with the graduation photographs of all the young women. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the first page of “As” and found that one of Bishop’s classmates was Gwendolyn Appleyard!
Bishop usually used people’s real names in her stories and even in poems, but sometimes she changed them. When she changed names there usually was some organic logic or reason for it. I had often wondered why Bishop had changed Patriquin to Appletree. Coming upon Gwendolyn Appleyard helped explain why. For Bishop, “life and the memory of it” were deeply, intricately intertwined.
One final little graveyard story, told to me by Phyllis Sutherland. During one of Bishop’s Nova Scotia visits in the 1970s, Phyllis took Bishop to an old cemetery up in the hills near Balfron, N.S. They sat there in the sunshine having a picnic, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. At one point Bishop remarked that it was a place where she herself would like to be buried because it was so peaceful and secluded. Well, Elizabeth Bishop is buried in Hope Cemetery in Worcester, MA, next to her parents. It is a gigantic cemetery, but also quite beautiful with many large trees. Considering the diaspora of Maritimers who ended up in the “Boston States,” undoubtedly there are few Nova Scotians and even one or two Great Villagers buried in that enormous cemetery. I have recently learned that one of my own great-grandfathers may very well be buried there (yet to be confirmed).
Bishop remembered with great affection going with her grandfather to cut the grass on the family plot and pick teaberries, which “grew good” in the cemetery, for her grandmother. It would have been the mid-1910s. At that point, the only Bulmer graves there were for those infant children. All around, though, and as time passed, the people of Great Village were laid to rest in this small memorial ground — the people who populate Elizabeth Bishop’s stories and poems. Delightfully, there are still little recumbent lambs on gravestones in the Mahon Cemetery and many of the stones still have that deep gold-crusted lichen.
Gwendolyn Patriquin's obituary, 6 September 1922, Truro Daily News. (Click on image to enlarge.)