"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 44: Health and family updates

Having dispatched the “newsy notes” and recipes that opened her letter of 19 July 1959, Bishop turned to medical matters, those in Brazil and those with her aunt.

The first family member to be updated was Bishop’s “poor cat.” Was it Tobias? She doesn’t say, but most likely that is who it was. While they were in Rio, the cat had “developed two bald spots in front of his ears.” This development made their cook, who was holding down the fort, “frantic.” Bishop had mentioned in a previous letter how the cook had called “every day,” something that had made Bishop “wonder.” She was able to tell Grace, “however, he’s rapidly getting his hair back.” Bishop supposed that he had eaten “a poisonous lizard or something.”

In addition to the cat’s troubles, their car was still ailing. Bishop informed Grace that they had “arrived back with the car busted again.” Remember the story about pushing it down the mountain in Rio. As a result, they had not yet seen “the new baby,” who, Bishop reiterated is “named Patricia.”
(Bishop with Tobias. From Carmen Oliveira, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas:
A história de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop.
Rocco: Rio de Janeiro, 1996 (between 64–65).)
Bishop had seen her doctor in Rio and offered Grace a wry update: “The doctor’s final remark on my big little-finger joint was: ‘Post-forty degeneration.’ That’s a cheering thought! Let’s hope it doesn’t spread.”

But what concerned Bishop more was her aunt’s health. She knew Grace was having tests and asked her to “tell me if you’ve had x-rays and a cardiograph.” Bishop herself had undergone the latter test a couple of years before because her “asthma-doctor wanted one just on general principles.” Grace knew well enough Bishop’s “history of asthma, adrenalin-taking etc.” Bishop reported that the test showed only “thickened lung tissues, naturally, after all this time.” She assured her aunt, as if the practicing nurse wouldn’t know, that a cardiograph test was “no trouble at all, in fact I rather enjoyed it.” Grace was clearly having some “heart business,” which caused Bishop real concern. “Please don’t go taking digitalis unless you know what’s wrong exactly — it is dangerous.” Grace must have complained about “pains in the lower chest, suffocation feelings, etc.,” which Bishop observed could “come from other causes perfectly well, you know.”

Bishop and Grace shared, for many obvious reasons a fascination with all things medical. It was one of the main subjects in their letters. The irony was that Grace was far healthier than Bishop, even at her more advanced age, living to nearly 90 to Bishop’s 68. Grace’s decades of nursing and Bishop’s own bent towards medicine, because of her direct childhood encounters with it, made their shared interest a dominant theme.

Bishop concluded this short dense paragraph with another diagnosis: “‘Angina’ can mean so many things, or nothing at all, by itself.” — with a final question: “How is that leg?” Bishop’s questions to her aunt were not dutiful courtesy, but deep, even anxious concern. Grace was her direct link to all that was Nova Scotia and maternal family. Bishop needed to stay connected to that place and time and those people to such a degree that she even allowed herself to write the name of the one person on her maternal side who had betrayed her trust: George Shepherdson (Aunt Maude’s husband). It is clear that Grace never learned of the abuse he inflicted on Bishop. By this time, George, a widower of 19 years, was again living in Nova Scotia. Grace, the remaining Bulmer in the province kept in touch with her brother-in-law out of a sense of duty and had offered Bishop and update in her most recent letter. In spite of everything he did to her, Bishop actually allowed herself to respond (perhaps because she did not want to rouse Grace’s suspicions).

“Poor Uncle George — it is sad, all right.” Just what was sad about George’s life is not, of course, repeated. There was no need. Clearly, one of the issues was some sort of isolation: “Do you think he has any other friends there besides that housekeeper’s daughter?” Why would Bishop care if he was lonely? Bishop then offers yet another medical assessment: “Part of his troubles has always been due to one very simple thing, too — too much starch.” What is one to think of such a conclusion? Is Bishop serious? Ironic? George was a tall man and too much carbohydrate and age had triggered “weight” issues and even “exzema,” [sic] a condition Bishop knew well. The last time Bishop saw him was likely in 1940 in Florida, just before Maude and George drove home to Great Village, where Maude promptly proceeded to die.

The next relative to get the treatment was Aunt Florence. Efforts had been underway to get “her into that Episcoplian [sic] home,” and Bishop had written to her cousin Kay Orr Sargent to find out the status of this effort, which required the intervention of her aunt’s doctor; but she hadn’t “heard yet.” Florence and George were handfuls, “It is even worse than Uncle G,” Bishop noted, because Florence “fights with everyone and hurts their feelings in the cruelest way.” For all their disagreeableness, for all the ways they had hurt Bishop during her childhood, somehow she was able to cast her distant gaze towards these difficult people and wonder about their circumstances. She was safe from any lashing out that might have been directed to her, yet, still, she seemed to want to know.

With health and family issues tended to, Bishop concludes her letter with some observations about Brazil. The next post will address these.

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