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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: The Post Office

One of the enduring images in Elizabeth Bishop’s story “In the Village” is of the child taking the package across the bridge to the post office. The package, put together by her grandmother, was sent to Bishop’s mother in the sanatorium in Dartmouth, N.S. The address on the package was written “in purple indelible pencil, on smoothed-out wrapping paper. It will never come off.” (Collected Prose, p. 271)

Elizabeth Bishop was only five years old when these packages started going to the hospital. Such a painful introduction to the purpose of the postal service might have been cause enough for most of us to avoid it for the rest of our lives, but the opposite was the case for Bishop. She was a life-long letter writer (and sender of packages). During an era when letter writing was still the custom, she was as fine a practitioner of the epistolary art as anyone. She loved sending and receiving mail, even as the first mail she sent was the painful “care package” to her ill, hospitalized mother.

Bishop’s description of the post office errand is both poignant and funny. She was fascinated by the post office building itself, which “sits on the side of the road like a package once delivered by the post office” (CP, 272). The post office was a gathering place for the community, as “the mails” were the primary mode of communication into and out of the village. The post office in Great Village had telegraph capacity during Bishop’s childhood. There were also some telephones in the village in the 1910s. But mail, delivered by the Canadian Pacific Railway, was the vital link. And, unlike today, it was picked up and delivered several times a day.

The postmaster during Bishop’s childhood was Angus Johnson. Born in River John in 1852, he took over postmaster duties in 1889 and remained on the job well into the twentieth century. Bishop remembered him as “very old, and nice. He has two fingers missing on his right hand where they were caught in a threshing machine.” She was intrigued by his “navy-blue cap with a black leather visor, like a ship’s officer” (CP, 272).

She knew that he knew where the package was going (indeed, everyone in the village knew). His gentle sympathy was not lost on the small child, “Yes. Yes. Your grandmother is very faithful.”

So beloved was Angus Johnson by the whole community that in 1933 he was honoured by a large gathering at St. James United Church, where he received a gold-headed cane for his years of devoted service. He also received a poetic encomium from Mrs. Peter Hall, which might have made both Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Burns smile. In part it read (and was recited on the occasion):

God’s blessing on ye Pastie man,
Ah Angus ye’er a prince o’man
To sort like you –
A bonnier lad I dinna ken.
God bless ye mon.

A happier mon I dinna see
Tho’ sometimes ye gang aft a-gley
And send our missives hither and yon
And say us nay.
But we forgive ye, bless ye’er hairt
Fra’ day to day…. (History of Great Village, 142)

Angus Johnson represented an essential human decency for Bishop. He was courteous and kind; he was the walking wounded; he was a figure of benign authority. He was master of his own little nativity: “Mr. Johnson looks out through the little window in the middle of the bank of glass-fronted boxes, like an animal looking out over its manger. But he is dignified by the thick, beveled-edged glass boxes with their solemn, upright gold-and-black-shaded numbers. Ours is 21” (CP, 272-273).

The original post office building, the one where Bishop took the packages, is no longer standing in Great Village, but the community still has a “very small” post office building just up the road from the original site. When the old post office was dismantled, the grill-work containing the “glass-fronted boxes” was transferred to the new location. You can still see who has mail and who doesn’t when you go there. You can still see box 21.

The original grill-work of the Great Village post office.

No comments:

Post a Comment