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

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 29 – Too little time, too much to do

Bishop’s 16 September 1957 letter to Grace was written not long before she and Lota were due to return to Brazil. It was a busy time. Bishop had just returned from Key West, where she had gone to see Marjorie Stevens: “I felt I couldn’t leave the U.S.A. without seeing Marjorie.” With Lota occupied with a Brazilian friend visiting for a few weeks, Bishop had gone off to reconnect with Majorie after nearly a decade. Grace knew Marjorie, so Bishop knew Grace would be interested in how she was doing. Marjorie was also interested to know about Grace. “She asked all about you,” Bishop wrote.
(Marjorie Stevens and Pauline Hemingway in Key West, 1940s)
Marjorie was living in a “new little house” and was keen to show it to Bishop. Though it was “fearfully hot in K.W.,” Bishop seemed to have a pleasant time, and saw several other “old friends.” The big topic was “Blue Points,” that is, Siamese cats, which Marjorie was taking care of for a friend: “pale gray with silver markings and blue eyes, beautiful animals.” Being a died-in-the-fur cat person, Bishop “let them sleep with me,” in spite of the heat. The more challenging part of their nature was they “talk a great deal!”
Bishop had welcomed this side-trip because Lota (and the visiting Brazilian friend) was “shopping like crazy,” so the apartment was in a state of upheaval with all the packages and packing.

Upon returning to New York, which was “hotter than ever — an unusual heat wave for September,” Bishop found “a new batch of proof waiting,” which had to be gone through before they left. You can see what came next: “This, plus the earlier sailing date, plus the fact that I’m completely BROKE, of course — means that I don’t see how I can possibly get to N.S.” I suspect Grace was not surprised, even if she was disappointed. Bishop always “hop[ed] against hope” to get to Nova Scotia on the rare occasions she was in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. But it never happened.

To further explain her financial constraints, Bishop noted, “I thought I was getting a refund on my income tax that would have paid for the ticket.” Her accountant, however, had conscientiously applied the refund “on next year’s instead.” Bishop was never good with business matters. Perhaps the accountant knew this weakness and was trying to help Bishop, in spite of herself. After months in the US, Bishop declared, “I’m going off with lots of unpaid bills and unseen friends.” Still, her “I am so terribly sorry, really,” sounded genuine. She added, “If it’s any consolation, Aunt F tells me my Worcester relatives are mad at not seeing me again!” Poor Aunt Florence “got Lota on the telephone while I was away — called her “LOLA” and told her how smart I am, but how it was only natural because the Bishops are all so smart!” When Bishop returned, she called her elderly paternal aunt, who told her that she wanted “some pink pajamas, ‘pretty ones dearie’ (as if left to my own devices I’d buy ugly ones).” There might have been good reasons why Bishop avoided her Worcester relatives.

Amusingly, Florence declared (in all seriousness) to Bishop that Grace was “getting married.” Bishop knew, of course, that this was not true, but couldn’t resist: “Is this true, and if so I wonder who is the lucky man?” Though she knew perfectly well it was “Aunt F’s fancies.” To extend the joke a bit more, Bishop noted, “I think it is a fine idea but I’m surprised you’d confide in Aunt Florence first!” One can see the two of them laughing heartily over this fancy.

Bishop was clearly pressed for time with completing the book work, shopping, final visits, and other appointments. This letter has a tone of: there are not enough hours in the day; and a regret of letting go of something she really wanted to do.

Bishop concluded this letter with an odd story, about an appointment with the dentist (she had been preoccupied about her teeth in Brazil, needing to get to the dentist; so getting to one in the US was a priority). To Grace she said, “I spent the morning at the dentist’s and read the Sept. [sic: August] National Geographic — a very silly piece about the Bay of Fundy.” This piece, “Giant Tides of Fundy,” was written by Paul Zahl. She told her aunt, “I think I’ll buy it just for the photographs — some of them made me feel homesick.”
In 1918 Bishop was in another dentist’s office reading a National Georgraphic. Here, nearly 40 years later, she was again registering the contents of one of the most ubiquitous magazines found in such waiting rooms. One wonders if it might not have triggered the old memory, though it took nearly another decade before she began to write “In the Waiting Room.” Zahl’s piece is actually not “silly” but a passionate and lively account of the environment of the Bay of Fundy. There are dozens of photographs, and no wonder some of them made her homesick. She concluded her letter, “I do wish I could get there now, to see the colours of the maple trees. With much love, and I’ll try to write sooner.”

The next letter has them back in Brazil.

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