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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 21: Uncle George Shepherdson

I drafted the post below before 17 August 2016, when there appeared online an article for the Boston Review, “One Long Poem,” by Heather Treseler, about some of the troubling contents in recently surfaced letters that Bishop wrote to the psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Foster: revelations of abuse Bishop suffered while living with Maude and George Shepherdson. George is identified as the abuser.

Coincidentally, the final letter that Bishop wrote to Grace in 1956, 2 December, contained the first mention of George Shepherdson in this correspondence (at least in what is extant). I try to have a couple of posts ahead, and this is one of several that I’d been deferring as I worked through other subjects.

When I read the Treseler piece, I was dismayed but not surprised. I had suspicions about such experiences and who the perpetrator might be, but had no concrete evidence (if you read between the lines of Bishop’s work, it is a reasonable speculation — but until direct evidence surfaced, it remained only speculation). It is, sadly, no longer speculation.

No one (biographer, literary critic, fellow poet, general reader) will ever be able to understand fully the impact and ramifications of these experiences on Bishop’s life and art. We can imagine and speculate, and can see some of their impact in the writing. But most of the impact is now lost. Over the years as I researched the life of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop, the more I learned about her circumstances the more I realized how little I could ever really know. I could only guess, trying to be reasonable and respectful in those guesses. What I did come to understand better was that Gertrude remained a powerful force in her daughter’s life. The nature of the influence was highly complex and most of it, too, is now lost; but I felt I could make that general claim with reasonable certainty.

I thought about scrapping this post and avoiding George Shepherdson entirely, but Bishop’s references to him in her letters to Grace (and there are a number of them over the years) are fascinating in light of his unforgivable actions. That she speaks of him at all, so many years after the abuse and while he is still alive, is remarkable, considering what he did. I have opinions about what that means, but they can only be that, in the end: opinions.

The draft of my post before I read Treseler’s article:

Bishop’s last extant letter to Grace for 1956 is dated 2 December. She had received a letter from her aunt “a month & a day” before, but Bishop declared, “I thought it was about 2 weeks!” — a sign that Bishop’s life was busy and that she experienced what we all do, that persistent sense of time flying by.

Grace’s letter had clearly updated Bishop on health matters, in particular a visit to a doctor for “a check-up (what Lota calls a ‘shake-up’ — and I think it’s a pretty good word for it, sometimes).” Grace had expressed some concerns about the doctor not doing a “cardiogram” to test her heart, but Bishop, in a sagacious tone reassured Grace, “if your blood pressure is normal that’s a fine sign — particularly when you are slightly on the stylish stout side!” One wonders what Grace, a nurse since 1914, thought of Bishop’s assessment that unless Grace’s heart was “ringing like a gong, or something” the doctor wouldn’t need to do such a test. “No doctor these days,” Bishop writes with authority, “lets a patient go without a heart-test if there’s the faintest symptoms of anything wrong.” Since he hadn’t seen a need to do so, Grace’s heart must be just fine.

But just to make sure, Bishop suggests that perhaps Grace, if she is worried, should switch from sugar to saccarine [sic], something she herself had done. No sacrifice was made by doing so because, to Bishop, it didn’t “make a bit of difference in the taste” of her coffee (she took “only…a little sugar in black coffee). She used a brand of liquid saccharin called “SWEETA” and even put it in iced tea and lemonade. She also used a small saccharin pill, but it took longer to dissolve. The pills were convenient to carry in one’s purse, “I always carry a little pill box now,” she told her aunt.

Grace had also brought her brother-in-law George Shepherdson into her letter, into the discussion about heart health, because Bishop also responded: “Uncle G talked about his heart for years & years before there was anything the matter with it, I’m sure.” In Bishop’s estimation, “he probably brought it on by talking about it.”

George Shepherdson married Maude Bulmer in 1908. It was Maude and George who raised Bishop. She went to live with them in the spring of 1918. At that time, they lived in Revere, Massachusetts. Bishop’s relationship with this uncle by marriage was likely fraught. [Ed. note: An understatement, of course.] George was an imposingly tall man, who was known universally as a teaser. [Ed. note: Well, he was, sadly, much more than that; but this is how Phyllis Sutherland, who knew him much less well, described him to me.] Bishop remembered going to museums in Boston with him. Maude took her to art galleries. In his early days, he was an adherent of the Sons of Temperance in Great Village. By the time Bishop was with them, this giant of a man, who didn’t seem able to hold down a job, enjoyed a drink or two with his Irish neighbour (whom he disparaged behind his back) out on the porch in the evenings. Bishop’s strongest characterization of him in her writing (an unfinished story called “Mrs. Sullivan Downstairs”) was that he was a hypocrite. When Bishop went to Key West in the 1930s, Maude and George went too and took up residence nearby.

By 1956, George was an elderly widower living in Amherst, N.S. Maude died in 1940. He re-surfaces in Bishop’s letters to Grace in the 1960s, at the time of his death. But in the December 1956 letter, Bishop tells Grace that she “wrote to him twice, you know, but he didn’t answer.” In spite of her gallivanting about and working in the U.S., Grace still maintained some sort of contact with him. [Ed. Note: It appears that she, or the rest of the Bulmers, did not know what he had done.]

Before the saccharin subject is abandoned, Bishop advises Grace to tell “Poor Uncle George” about this wonderful substitute and ventured the opinion that “if he’d cut out sugar and white bread he’d lose [weight], I bet.” “Remember how much bread he eats? and sugar in everything, ‘for flavor’.” Even with their fraught relationship, and with a “housekeeper” who “certainly sounds pretty dreary,” Bishop was far enough away in space and time to be able to “feel sorry for him.”

Until Treseler’s article, I could only go so far as “fraught.” I probably did not want to believe my suspicions. But when they were confirmed my first response was questions: How is it that Bishop could stand to mention George Shepherdson’s name? Not only that, she was able to label him, diminish him, and pity him. Abusers are failed human beings who wreak havoc. The abused often can never reclaim their lives after such trauma. But somehow Bishop, at least in some part, on some level, took her uncle’s power away from him and reclaimed her own. Was it art? Was it Ruth Foster’s help? Was it Bishop’s own inner strength? It was likely all of these and more. How could Maude have allowed this abuse? My opinion, based on what I’ve read (between the lines), is that Maude was likely an abused spouse.

It seems that abuse is the last trauma (the last “dark secret” — and it is the biggest one, the one that always remained utterly hidden and unspoken) of Bishop’s childhood. Her list is long: the death of her father when she was eight months old; the loss of her mother to mental illness when she was five; this newly revealed violation beginning (so the letters to Foster say) when she was eight. Part of the impact of these traumas were: her adult alcoholism (though she came by it honestly, as men on both sides of her family were alcoholics); her thoughts and attempts of suicide; her troubled relationships and affairs. That Bishop not only survived but also persevered is heroic. It bespeaks some outside goodness, which in some way counter-balanced the trauma: kind and caring family (her maternal grandparents and beloved Aunt Grace); once she began school, supportive teachers and friends; and loving partners. But Bishop’s survival must have come, primarily, from her inner resources (her imagination, curiosity, precocious understanding of and deep belief in beauty, sense of humour and irony). These things needed to be fostered by the outside world, but mostly they needed to exist in the first place. Bishop struggled her whole life, but she also lived a creative life. These revelations will be written about at length, I am sure. Hopefully, they will be treated as respectfully and carefully as Treseler has done, as she has brought them to light.

The next post will be about politics.

Click here to see part 20.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 20: Rainy Season

One of Bishop’s loveliest evocations of her time in the house at Samambaia is her poem “Song for the Rainy Season,” describing the fog and flowers, the “magnetic rock” and “giant fern,” the clouds and waterfalls surrounding the “open house.” This poem appeared in The New Yorker on 8 October 1960. The mid- to late 1950s was perhaps the happiest time of Bishop’s adult life, when her days amid the abundance of the sub-tropics, in the countryside away from the city, were as domestic and creative as she needed and wanted. Her letter of 19 October 1956 was written well before “Song for the Rainy Season” emerged, but Bishop’s descriptions of her surrounds to Aunt Grace clearly foretell the poem.

Bishop was indeed deep into the domestic at this time, all aspects of it, including medical matters, some of which connected to the very flora and fauna of her surrounds. “We give ourselves shots, when we need them,” Bishop reported “even penicillen [sic].” Bishop was giving herself all her “allergy shots,” as well as administering them to “the cook, the workmen, etc.” Bishop was being nurse, just like Aunt Grace had been for her decades before. She even noted, “we have anti-snake serum on hand all the time, just in case,” because “there are a few deadly ones around.” Since Bishop had arrived, however, it hadn’t been needed, “thank goodness.”

Just for good measure, Bishop explained, “Lota and I are taking something called Geri-Caps — Park Davis,” Bishop declared, noting that this medication was for “old ladies,” and asking Grace if she gave them to her patients, “blue capsules with yellow stripes.” Bishop assured Grace that she was feeling fine taking them, along with some vitamins, though she observed in her good skeptic’s manner, “maybe I’d feel fine without anything!”

All of this medical activity was happening amid the onset of the rainy season: “It’s pouring rain,” Bishop stated, observing that “in fact there was scarcely a dry season.” As a result of all the rain, the flowers were busting forth: agapanthus, “huge blue or white lilies …all up the hillside.” These could reach “3 or 4 ft high.” There were also azaleas, allyssum [sic], phlox, sweet william [sic] and irises: “all over the place.”
(Agapanthus in full flower)
With all this flowering, they had decided “to keep bees. I’ve always wanted to.” They were awaiting four hives of “Italian bees,” to be brought by a man, who would “install them and care for them when you need him.” Much of the motivation for this important ecological action was the honey, “friends of ours got about 50 pounds” of honey from the hives they had installed. The hives had to be built in a special way to prevent ants from moving in and taking over. “The ants here would eat US, I think, if we didn’t watch out.”
(Perhaps this is the kind of Brazilian bee hive Bishop writes about.)
The image of Brazilian bees from my childhood is that of “killer bees” and the great fear that they would reach North America. Clearly, these continental bees were safe and beneficial.

Also in the midst of all this domestic preoccupation, Bishop told Grace that she’d not heard from poor old Aunt Florence “for about a month, or more.” She noted that she’d had a letter from someone named Fulton, who worked for her grandfather’s company (which still existed though her grandfather and uncle were long gone), “about a piece of land I own but have never seen.” She doesn’t elaborate about this property, but rather tells her aunt that Fulton could “scarcely write, poor boy …. I was rather shocked.” As she signed off this letter filled with all sorts of domestic subjects, she urged Grace to “write again” and tell her about the new job and “your building plans.”

There were just as many flowers and trees at the Samambaia house in 1999, such as this amazing “blood-red” bromelia.
Ed. Note: In light of the revelations that are discussed in the news item posted on this blog on 17 August, I can't post this "Letters to Grace" without acknowledging them. I only just today read about them. Until Bishop's letters to Dr. Foster were made public, the tragic experiences of Bishop's childhood, could only be speculation. Some might say these things are too private to be discussed by strangers, but such is the way of the world, these days (reality and talk show television have transformed our world). And perhaps Bishop would be relieved that they are no longer secret. Bishop's cousin, Phyllis Sutherland, who was a dear friend of mine, only very obliquely hinted at secrets; but she was a whole generation younger than Bishop and such things were kept so well hidden that perhaps she didn't even try to speculate herself. I suppose it is now inevitable that a whole raft of writing will happen in the academy about these revelations and it will come to define Bishop as lesbianism and mental illness have done at various times. We are the sum of all our experiences and Bishop was about as complex a person and artist as they come. My feeling about all of this, as someone who has explored deeply Bishop's childhood and her maternal family, is profound sadness. Perhaps I will have more to say about it sometime, but I am not sure. If these letters are ever published (and I suppose they are at least amply quoted in the upcoming biographies about her), they will really say that can be said. What else can we say in the face of such sorrow, but how sorry we are.

Click here to see Part 19.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 19: Television

Bishop’s letter of 19 October 1956 begins with the birth of her cousin Phyllis’s second son, David Alexander, and also the birth of a new grandchild for Aunt Mary, by Mary’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Ross Naudin. But with these dutiful acknowledgements dispatched, she turns to a quite different subject: “If you really enjoy having TV like that, why not get one?” Television technology had been around for some time, and during the post-war baby boom years, televisions were becoming more common and the broadcast industry expanding rapidly. Even so, these “devices” (as we now call such things), this “platform,” remained expensive enough that they were still subjects for serious discussion. And in Brazil, television was “just in its infancy,” as Bishop observed. (Now our discussions are about television’s irrelevance, with expanding, exploding electronic social media and online broadcasting. One wonders what Bishop would have thought of YouTube!)

Bishop declared to her aunt, “I have seen so little television that I really don’t know anything about it.” There was television in Rio, she notes, “but I’ve never even seen it.” Her friends judged “the sports things … the best,” but “they say the programs are dreadful.” A few people “have sets in PetrĂ³polis,” some with “big enough aerials” that could pick up Rio broadcasts.
 (1956 cabinet tv)
Bishop noted that Lota was trying to convince a neighbour “to get one [a television] for himself and his elderly sister — 4 elderly people living together, and he has plenty of money.” But he was balking at the idea of this new-fangled technology. Lota’s motive was not entirely disinterested because, as Bishop observed, if these neighbours got TV, “then we could go to see things on it we wanted to see!” Lota’s house at Samambaia was “up against enormous steep high stone mountains,” meaning that they would “probably never be able to get it, even when Rio gets more powerful stations.” (This sounds like the kind of talk you still hear in rural Nova Scotia, and many rural areas, where high-speed internet {don’t even think about “fibreop”} is still not yet available.)
(View of the mountain at Samambaia, 1999. I think I took this photograph.)
For some reason, writing about television and sports made Bishop think of Marianne Moore: “My friend the poet, Miss Moore, lives in Brooklyn and is a great Dodger [sic] fan.” Moore was 69 in 1956 and had become a fixture at baseball games. Bishop tells her aunt that Moore had recently “written a song for them! — I can’t quite imagine it being sung, but anyway.” Bishop undoubtedly refers to the poem Moore wrote in 1956, “Hometown Piece for Messrs. Alston and Reece”  — which was set to music.
Even in my childhood (the 1960s), television was a particular luxury. We had a black and white television set, one of those big cabinets that took up a lot of room, and got two channels, if I remember correctly. We never missed our favourite shows. I remember my parents faithfully watching Don Messer’s Jubilee and the Red Skelton Show and as my sisters and I got older, we never missed The Carol Burnett Show or Canadian Bandstand. We also grew up watching The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, both much beloved (long before the dominance of Sesame Street, a show which Bishop did watch when she returned to the US in the 1970s).
(Yours truly beside our television, 1967. Looks like the news is on.)

The next post will be about flora, fauna and weather.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 18: (Re)Construction

On of the last things Bishop tells her aunt in the 28 August 1956 (besides the fact that she’d written “a long letter” to Aunt Mary, but had heard nothing) was that the “cook Maria had a miscarriage.” With what for some might sound like callousness, Bishop observed, “we were awfully glad, I’m afraid.” Maria recovered quickly. Remember, there was already one baby, Betty, who was “trying so hard to talk — she uses all the gestures already — and is adorable.” Just before signing off “With lots of love, and please write,” Bishop wrote, “I do hope Phyllis is well.” Grace’s daughter Phyllis was just about due to have her second child.

This subject, important to Bishop, was taken up at the beginning of her next extant letter dated 19 October 1956: “I got the little announcement about David Alexander.” Bishop thought it a good name, “nice and Scotch.” Bishop didn’t meet Phyllis’s children until 1970, when she was finally back living in Boston and taking annual trips to Nova Scotia. Her first gift to the then 14 year old David Alexander was a Grateful Dead album!

Grace had obviously filled Bishop in on the activities of her cousin’s family. “Ernie is doing very well, isn’t he.” Ernest Sutherland was a World War II veteran who became a contractor and builder after the war. He was one of the first North American contractors to build wooden, pre-fabricated houses in Palestine during the late 1940s. The post-war boom also saw much housing construction throughout Nova Scotia and Canada, and the Sutherland family moved numerous times during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in Balfron, N.S. Bishop was always interested to hear where they had gone and what they were doing, and Grace was always keen to tell her.

“Ernie’s” construction work intrigued Bishop because the house at Samambaia was still under construction. She told her aunt that Lota was hoping to finish the house “inside another year.” There was some delay because “costs have gone up here about five times since she started,” meaning that Lota was “paying exactly five times as much for a bag of cement, for example.” (Construction issues in Brazil seem perpetual — one of the biggest issues for the Brazil Olympics, which begin today, is the state of the athletes’ accommodations, conditions which have made the news around the world. But, then, such colossal international events put a strain on all the cities in which they are held. In Canada, Montreal’s 1976 Olympics are still notorious for “the Oval,” a monstrous building that never really got finished and was a kind of blight on the cityscape for decades, or, as Wikipedia characterizes: a white elephant.)
(Patio of the house at Samambaia, 1999,
taken by yours truly during my trip.)
Grace was also preoccupied with housing. Clearly, she’d been thinking out loud to her niece in a recent letter, as Bishop responds: “I think it is a very good idea for you to have a small house of your own.” Bishop urged her aunt to plan for her “retirement” and commiserated with Grace about living “with all those other people” (meaning the big Bowers family at Elmcroft). “The older one grows the more privacy one needs (I find).” Bishop mentions that Marjorie Stevens had “remodeled a little old place in Key West for herself,” having secured a “government building loan” to do so. Might it be possible for Grace to get such a loan? Bishop remembered a small house on the Elmcroft farm and asked, “Have you considered remodelling that little house down the road where you & I stayed, or is that too far from the big house?”

Grace’s living arrangements remained fluid for some time, as she continued nursing work, sometimes going back to the US. In any case, Bishop was concerned enough for her aunt’s future that she offered to help, eventually: “either with the down-payment or with the installments,” if Grace chose to buy or build a house. This support could not be immediate because she was paying back the loan she had taken from a US bank to invest in a “real-estate enterprise” in Brazil, “that should start paying off in three years, until then I have to pay a big interest every month, of course.” She hopes she will “get rich,” but also acknowledges that she might end up “just as poor as ever to the end of my days.”

Besides the investment scheme, which clearly was the long view, Bishop told Grace that since she’d finished the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, she was working on “some stories and if all goes well — and I sell the translation, too (2½ years work) — I should have more money pretty soon.”

Bishop urged her aunt to “tell me the details” of her hopes and plans so she could “day-dream about your house — I adore planning houses,” and to keep her informed about her “pension situation” and assured her aunt that she wanted to help, “My idea all along.” These hopes, ideas, plans unfolded over the course of the next several years, though it appears Bishop couldn’t or didn’t need to provide Grace with this kind of on-going support, when Grace reached finally retired in the late 1960s. Besides, Grace was a feisty and independent woman, whose children faithfully supported her in her retirement years.
(Pilgrims, many who trekked up the mountain,
to visit Lota’s house at Samambaia, 1999.
Photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
The next post offers a glimpse of Bishop’s opinions about the television and the perennial subject: weather.