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

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 35: Grace and Marjorie

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 9 April 1958. Since the March epistle, Bishop had heard from Grace, who was back in Nova Scotia. She had also heard from Marjorie Stevens about Grace’s visit to Key West. Catching up with these correspondences was the first order of business.

Even though Grace was “home” from her gallivanting, Bishop wasn’t exactly sure if that meant Great Village or Dartmouth. Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland and her family lived in the latter place and Grace often spent time with them. Even though Grace had been gallivanting, she always took time to write and she had remembered Bishop’s birthday (8 February): “Your birthday card to me arrived about a week ago!” One can observe that mails are not much faster these days. The slowness of this natal day greeting was due to it being “overweight so it had come by boat.” Bishop mentioned “the yellow roses,” but didn’t linger on this birthday greeting, rather she jumped right into “a long letter from Marjorie,” in which she learned more about Grace, Mabel and Hazel’s visit to Key West. Marjorie had penned the letter “the day after your visit there.”

Bishop passed on Marjorie’s response: “She was sorry she couldn’t do more for you … but loved seeing you.” Grace clearly had been stylishly turned out, as Marjorie “described your outfit in great detail, said you looked very chic and had a good haircut.” Bishop envied Grace’s good hair, confessing she cut her own hair when not in Rio and declared that at “the moment I look like a bundle of steel-wool.”

As for Grace’s niece Hazel (Mabel’s daughter), she was very familiar with Key West, having lived in Florida for decades. Bishop said that Marjorie felt Mabel seemed “rather indifferent to it all,” in contrast to Grace who “took in everything.” With a knowing, behind the hand whisper in her words, Bishop wondered, “maybe she was having the sulks that day?”

Bishop herself had been in Key West the previous year, a visit after a long absence. For her, Key West was “completely ruined.”  Some of the “back streets” retained their charm, but the main street was “just one long bar and stinks of beer.” Not a slogan for a tourist brochure! Marjorie must has shown Grace the house Bishop and Louise Crane had owned in the 1930s: “How did you like” it? Bishop asked. It had changed, too, from the time Bishop lived there in the 1930s. At that time “there were not buildings across the street just fields.” Because “the woman who has it now has never pruned a single bush in 15 years,” Bishop was shocked by how overgrown it was. Even with this change, Bishop held some affection for the building itself, “a pretty house, as far as lines go.”
(EB’s house in Key West, 2011.
I have forgotten who sent me this photo and the ones below.)
Eager to learn Grace’s impressions of the place, Bishop urged her aunt to write, and also to “tell her how Marjorie seemed.” Bishop’s visit the previous year had been pleasant, with her “well and cheerful” friend. But Bishop knew her Marjorie “works much too hard — Saturdays & Sunday’s usually, too.” Living on her own, with a house to maintain and a modest income, Marjorie had not yet been able to “furnish her house” fully, partly because she had renovated. But Bishop was impressed by how much her old friend had accomplished. She worried, however, that Marjorie was “terribly lonely there, poor dear.” To cheer her up, Bishop was going to try to send her “some orchids.” Bishop had described the “orchid-growers for neighbours” in Samambaia, and two of the big nurseries had “export licenses.” Alas, it is not known if Marjorie ever got her Brazilian orchids.
(EB’s house in Key West. Still overgrown!)
Even with all the struggles and challenges, Bishop admired how her old friend “keeps going and keeps up her ‘standards’.”

After all this catching up, Bishop concluded wistfully with, “Well, I wish you could have come a few thousand miles further south, too.”
 (The literay landmark plaque on Bishop's house in Key West.)

The next post is a little hunting expedition.

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