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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 6: Christmas gifts

Bishop’s letter to Aunt Grace dated 19 December 1955 was prompted in part by the upcoming holiday season. Christmas was not Bishop’s favourite time of year. Until she settled in Brazil, Bishop spent her life struggling with increased depression during this season, one she avoided as much as possible. The reasons for this response could make a lengthy article, if not a book; though she was no different than many of us who hold at least an ambivalence about this sacred holiday turned family-obsessed, commercial extravaganza.

Even so, it is clear from Bishop’s letters to Grace that aunt and niece exchanged Christmas gifts more or less regularly, even when far removed. Indeed, Bishop endeavoured to send Christmas gifts to most of her closest relatives, even to Aunt Florence Bishop, with whom she had a fraught relationship. Perhaps Bishop made these gestures out of a sense of obligation, but with Grace, the impulse was more tender. Indeed, Bishop sent her aunt many gifts over the years, and not only at Christmas. Some of these gifts are now part of the family archive at Acadia University.

For this particular Christmas, Bishop enclosed “a small token” (that is, money), which she wished was larger, “but since it’s been a ‘poetry year’ rather than a ‘prose year’, I’m unusually impoverished.” The reason for this seemingly impersonal gift was because Bishop had already ordered “a large box of chocolates and bon bons” from S.S. Pierce’s in Boston, to be sent directly to Grace and her nursing friend at a hospital in Vermont, where they had been working. But Grace’s letter of 7 December (missing, of course) informed Bishop that she was no longer there (the “gallivanting” aunt was now in Brookline, MA — so the gift from Pierce’s was lost).
S.S. Pierce was a long-established business in Boston
For “Aunt F,” Bishop had ordered “some little quarter-bottles of champagne, enough for a glass for her & a friend, to cheer her up.” Florence, too, had been on the move. Bishop told Grace that Florence’s new address was “21 Fruit Street, Worcester.” Grace knew Florence well and Bishop asked Grace to “send her a card if there is time,” because “she is pretty wretched these days, I’m afraid.”
21 Fruit St., Worcester, MA (today)
As for Bishop’s Christmas, she told her aunt that it would “be very quiet — we hope.” They were expecting a friend from Rio and they had to “call on, & be called upon,” by the neighbours. Lota gave Bishop “a lovely pair of old earrings, gold, probably Portug[u]ese.” Bishop gave Lota “some books” and was painting her a picture, “when I have time to paint it.” Christmas in Brazil, at least during the 1950s, was a much more uplifting time for Bishop, though her modus operandi was, always, just to get through it.

The next detail I will discuss is Grace’s “gallivanting.”

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