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

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 4: First from Brazil

The second postcard in the Vassar register’s file “1950–52,” of Bishop’s correspondence to Aunt Grace, does date from this time. The cancellation mark reads “21 I 52” (21 January 1952). Bishop is in Brazil. This postcard was not the first communication to Aunt Grace during what Bishop still, at this point, thought was a visit. Its purpose was to let Grace know as quickly as possible that she had decided to alter her travel plans, “I’m staying in Brazil until the end of Feb,” and confirm her address, so that Grace could write: “the Rio address will reach me.” Clearly, Bishop had written to Grace earlier, as the postcard contains no return address.

Bishop addresses this postcard to The Red Cross Hospital in Tatamagouche, N.S. By 1952, Grace was a widow (William Bowers having died in 1947) and her children grown. Grace returned to full-time nursing, taking positions at various hospitals in Nova Scotia and New England, before she retired sometime in the 1960s. So, Grace also informed Bishop of her whereabouts. With the death of Aunt Maude in 1940, Bishop’s connection with Grace became even more important. They kept tabs on each other.

Bishop left New York City on 26 October 1951. She arrived in Brazil on 26 November, and in Rio on 30 November. She became ill (the infamous incident with the fruit of the cashew) sometime after 12 December and was nursed back to health by Lota de Macedo Soares. Millier writes, “By February 10 [1952], she had admitted that the idea of continuing her trip, or of going back to the United States, was further and further from her mind.” (245)

The image on the verso of this postcard is a vista showing a precipitous curving road in the mountains, which Bishop admitted was “terrifying the 1st time.”
Is it just me, or is this image rather symbolic of what was then happening to Bishop — the journey on this road took her further into Lota’s life. They took the risk of a partnership that had immense and powerful consequences, Bishop called it “precipitate” in “The Shampoo,” for them both. But, of course, Bishop was just showing her beloved aunt some of the wonders of Brazil, an image she knew would resonate with Grace. After all, Nova Scotia had its own narrow curving roads, threading through mountains, and some of them not too far from Great Village.
This photograph was taken in 1958 by my parents during a Cape Breton vacation they took with friends, on the famous winding Cabot Trail. Bishop’s one trip to Cape Breton occurred in 1947. Not much would have changed in the following decade. Even if the mountainous roads in Brazil were grander (most things are grander in Brazil!), it is not stretching reality to suppose Bishop thought of Nova Scotia when she first drove to Petrópolis, and she knew Grace would appreciate what she experienced, as undoubtedly, Grace had visited the Cabot Trail, too.

Bishop wrote, “Thank you so much for your letter. & I’ll write soon.” That letters exchanged between 1942 and 1952 do not survive does not mean they did not exist. Likely, there were many. We are fortunate that so many of Bishop’s letters to Aunt Grace, from the 1950s to 1970s, did survive.

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