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

Friday, March 25, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 2: A Letter from Grace to Maude, circa 1938 or 1939

Bishop pasted the letter below in a notebook that she kept during the 1930s (EBP, VII, 72A.3). It is interesting that even though this letter was addressed to her aunt, Bishop chose to claim and preserve it — and in a context that was decidedly non-rural.* Grace was living at Elmcroft in Great Village when she wrote the letter. Elmcroft was William Bowers’s big farm. William, a widower with six grown children, married Grace in 1923. By the early 1930s, Grace had her own three children, who are mentioned in the letter (Buddy, Rod, and Phyllis). Helene was Grace’s step-daughter (the only girl among William’s children). Grace had worked for the Red Cross in Massachusetts during World War I. I do not know if she found the proof she needed to get the bonus. Grace’s Red Cross pins, and a number of other items from her nursing career, are at Acadia University Archives (http://openarchive.acadiau.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/BBHS/id/917 ). Grace continued to nurse in various ways and places until she retired in the 1960s. During the 1930s, she was known to help Dr. T.R. Johnson do appendectomies on kitchen tables in the community. Grace addresses her sister as “Maud” (without the “e”), but her name was, officially, Maude).

Dear Maud,
            Your have written about three letters to my one. It seems as if the busy days are never going to let up this fall. Even Sundays are busy, but today is an exception, Will and I and the children are alone. Helene is out to dinner. Viola and the children are down home and Tom is away to the Mountain hunting cattle. Buddy and Roddy are watching the cattle, keeping them out of the turnips and Phyllis is knitting herself a pair of bed socks. She is very industrious, always wants to be doing something. She has learned to run the machine and last week she made me four holders. I am going to get some flannelette and let her make herself some pajamas. She likes to cook too, fudge especially.
            Rod is getting along fine at school. You would laugh to hear him read. He never looks at the book at all. It is no trouble for Buddy to learn. He stays at the head of his class, the teacher puts him at the foot on Monday A.M. and he works up again. There are only four in his class so it isn’t much to brag about, but Phyllis is never at the head, she pulls in about 3rd.
            I guess I told you about the dykes breaking in the spring and it costing so much to get them fixed. Well we had another high tide and they broke again. We have had two extra men here ever since Sept. 27th, with two or three lunches every day besides the three kids. I am so sick of putting up lunches. It takes so much bread and sweet stuff. I make 16 loaves of bread every week, to say nothing of rolls, biscuits etc. I think they’ll be through this week and I’ll not be sorry. Besides that we had a well drilled at the barn. Two men were here 4 or 5 days. They went down 77 feet and finally got 30 ft. of water. It cost us $2.00 per foot, and we are paying for it with potatoes. It is such a job in the winter weather to get the cattle and horses to the brook. It will be a great help to them. Our potatoes are only a fair crop. We have quite a lot of stem rot, but they are a good price $1.00 a bag. We have a big crop of turnips but there is quite a lot of club root in there. There is always something to keep the rabbit’s tail short.
            Marie wrote me that they were paying a bonus to the nurses who had served in the Red Cross. She said she heard of one girl getting $450.00. I thought likely it was only overseas nurses, but Hazel said she didn’t think so. So anyway I wrote. I thought if they are foolish enough to pay a bonus to girls who did only home nursing I might as well have it as well as the others. I didn’t know the exact dates I was working in the Red Cross, so they answered and told me that only those enlisted between the dates of Apr. 6, 1917 and Nov. 1, 1918 and who were in the service not less than 30 days were entitled to the bonus. I have written to the Red Cross in Boston to see if I can find out when I did join. Can you remember when I joined. It is so long ago that I have forgotten all about it nearly. I still have my pin and my number 30504 so perhaps I will get something.
            P.S. – I forgot to tell you that the big busses to Monclair [sic], St. John, Boston, etc. go right by the door. It doesn’t seem as if you were quite so far away with them going by daily. You and George had better come that way for Xmas.
(l. to r. Wallace (Bud/Buddy) Bowers, Lois Bowers (his wife),
Phyllis Bowers Sutherland. Standing, Marie Lucia Martins)

Addendum: There is a great deal that could be annotated in this letter. For example, the buses that Grace mentions refer to the Nova Scotia Coach Lines, which began operation on 1 August 1938. So, Grace is passing on news about a recent development. The company became known as Acadian Lines in 1947. This fact is important because Bishop scholars, including myself, believe that Bishop’s famous bus ride back to Boston in 1946 (which triggered “The Moose”) was on an Acadian Lines Bus, but not quite. Her visit to Nova Scotia in 1947 would have seen her travelling on the coaches of the newly re-christened company. Perhaps it does not matter what the name of the bus company was at any point, but Bishop herself would have cared. Names were important to Bishop.

As tempted as I am to offer extensive annotation of this document, I will resist and conclude with what I think is an obvious observation: What is evident from this brief letter is that Grace’s correspondence was serious communication, filled with information and ideas and a good deal of humour. Bishop was open to all these elements, eager always to hear Grace’s news and thoughts. Even this solitary letter reveals why Bishop would value the correspondence with her aunt.
* Bishop started this journal shortly after graduating from Vassar. She spent a good deal of the 1930s in New York City and Europe. Loretta Blasko transcribed this journal in the mid-2000s, exploring Bishop’s fascination with modernism: “What It Means to Be Modern: Elizabeth Bishop’s New York Notebook, 1934–1937,” M.A. Thesis, University of Michigan-Flint, 4 May 2006.

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