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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace — Part 9: The Babies

One subject that Bishop knew would keenly interest her aunt was children, particularly babies and toddlers. In the mid- to late 1950s, the house as Samambaia was a veritable nursery, with several children present on a regular basis.

In Bishop’s letter of 18 January 1956, she gives an account of “Lota’s ‘granddaughter’,” Helena, who was the daughter of Lota de Macedo Soares’s “adopted” son Kylso. Kylso and his wife had several children in close succession (Helena, Paulinha, Roberto, Lotinha and Patricia). At this point, it was just Helena and her younger sister. During the late 1950s, these children spent time with their “granny” on a number of occasions, partly because Kylso and his family lived in a very small apartment in Rio, where, Bishop speculated, “they just never go to bed.” January 1956 appears to have marked Helena’s first visit, because Bishop is introducing her to Grace.

Bishop observed that she thought Lota was “causing a slight social scandal” when, in Petrópolis she told anyone who asked, that Helena was “My grandchild.” “So I imagine,” Bishop wrote, “people are asking each other when Lota had a child, and if the family hushed it up, or what!” This kind of speculation was familiar to Bishop because local gossips in Great Village had said of Arthur Bulmer, Grace's brother, that he “had” to marry Mabel Pigott, though it was decidedly not true, as their first child was born nearly two years after their wedding. Being from a small community, Grace would have appreciated Bishop’s observations on a number of levels, after all, Grace herself had eloped with the widower William Bowers, a “slight social scandal” in its day.

Bishop told Grace that Lota “would spoil Helena in no time,” thus proving to be “a real ‘granny’.” Bishop was quite intrigued by Helena, who “is barely three, and so good.” Yet, “she’s too clean for a child that age — always washing her face and hands, folding up her clothes and putting them away.” This behaviour made Bishop worry “a little.” On the trip to Petrópolis, Lota bought Helena an ice cream: “I came out of a store,” wrote Bishop, “& saw nothing but Helena’s little bottom sticking up in the air as she leaned over the side of the car to eat it.” Bishop observed, however, that this spoiling was doing the child good, as she “is already much fatter and sleeping much more than when she came.”

Helena was not the first baby to arrive in the household. Lota’s cook had a child on 7 February 1955, the day before Bishop’s birthday. She was named Maria Elizabeth. As Brett Millier notes, the cook wanted Bishop to be the child’s godmother, but because she was not baptized, the church would not allow it (Life & the Memory of It, 265). It is clear from this letter that Bishop had already told Grace about “Betty” (Millier says she was called “Bettchy”), because she mentions her without much background, and notes that at just under a year “she already has two teeth…and is walking a little…pretty good, isn’t that?”
Millier writes, “Elizabeth and Lota supervised the raising of Bettchy, relying heavily on Dr. Spock.” (265) In the letter to Grace, Bishop remarks that Lota had studied “child-psychology,” so she had a lot of theory to draw upon.
(Benjamin Spock himself, 1970s)
Sadly, Bettchy and her parents were gone by 1960 and Bishop never saw her again. Bettchy’s place was filled in 1961 when Mary Morse (Lota’s previous partner, who still lived nearby) adopted a baby, Monica. But the bigger gap was the loss of Kyslo’s family, around this same time, caused by a rift between Lota and her adopted son. (Millier 266) By 1960, however, preoccupations with children were quickly replaced by preoccupations with the creation of Parque do Flamengo, a huge project which became Lota’s true “baby.”
(Mary and Monica Morse. Source:
http://www.institutolotta.com.br/index.html )
The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the most conventionally domestic time of Bishop’s life, and also one of the most creative. Bishop told Grace, “It’s probably good for us to have babies around.” Elizabeth and Lota seemed inclined and suited to the roles of aunt and grandmother. They certainly had definite ideas about child-rearing, which is rather amusing considering they were never mothers. Grace, on the other hand, was the veteran in this field, already with a first grandchild and a second one due to arrive that year. It is sad that Grace’s responses to Bishop’s many stories and theories about these children are lost. Undoubtedly, they would have been amusing, practical and insightful. Grace had been such an integral part of Bishop’s own childhood, right from birth, that it is not surprising Bishop was eager to share details about their “babies.”

With all these children around, Bishop was thinking a great deal about her own childhood, and she had begun a translation project directly connected to the childhood of a famous Brazilian. In the next post, I will look at the work Bishop was engaged in at this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment