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

Monday, January 8, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 46: Returning to 1959

My last “Letters to Aunt Grace” post was on 17 March 2017 (#45). I had become a little discouraged about the point of the whole series, even as I had a really fun time writing it (indeed, it was the most fun I ever had writing about Bishop). So I decided to take a break for awhile. Now we are well into 2018. The good news about the EB House has lifted my spirits and makes me want to re-start these epistolary meditations. I do believe Bishop’s letters to her favourite aunt are important, even if it is not the grand literary correspondence that gets all the attention. I am going to start slowly, but I hope to post an item every week or so.

I stopped at a letter in July 1959 and begin with one dated “Rio, August 25th, 1959.” This was a time when Elizabeth and Lota were going back and forth between Samambaia and Rio on a fairly regular basis (the harbinger to the big change that happened in 1960–1961, when Lota began work on the park). As this letter starts, Bishop reports than she and Lota were in the big city “for another stretch,” having been there only a short time before. Bishop had been accumulating Grace’s letters, “(no 5),” without being able to respond, because of the travelling.

Just where Grace was, we do not know, but likely at home in Nova Scotia, because her most recent epistle brought alarming news: “I am so sorry to hear you’ve been sick and in bed with phlebitis.” As with all letters, the gap between writing and reading was considerable, so Bishop wrote what most correspondents in that era did, declaring, “I do hope you are better now.”

Like Bishop, Grace had an issue with penicillin. Neither could take it safely, though Bishop, ever up on all things medical, noted: “there are one or two forms of it one can take, apparently.” All medications carry risks (listen to any drug ad on television these days), and Bishop pondered, “if one is really sick enough it is worth the bad reaction, I suppose — to save one’s life!” Indeed. But what a choice to have.

Bishop and Grace not only loved each other, they also empathized deeply. From the time Bishop was a child, this empathy and kinship with Grace was a central part of their bond. Bishop’s often lengthy disquisitions about her and Grace’s health issues and medical treatments emerged from this deep concern and shared interest, not to mention knowledge. Bishop knew Grace was just as interested in such things as she was.

Bishop wondered if there was not “something they can do to cure it [the phlebitis] permanently.” And she again urged Grace to go to Halifax for a cardiograph (a subject that had come up a number of times in previous letters), because it was the only way to know “what you’re doing.” Besides, such tests were “reassuring.”

Bishop’s final comment in this opening paragraph, which covered a lot of ground in a few lines, was an editorial comment on what we today call “big pharma”: “These drugs are so damned expensive,” confirming it was so “even here, where things are cheaper as a rule.”

And so began another letter. Those of us who care mostly for the high literary value of correspondence forget that even the most famous people are, in the end, only human and are concerned, preoccupied, even obsessed with issues that obsess us all, especially illness and medicine. Clearly, Bishop did not find this kind of subject boring, rather it was vital and perhaps reflected on and affected her art more than we realize.

Bishop’s next subject in this letter (for the next post) takes this kind of concern about health, illness and medical intervention into a different, but closely related realm. Stay tuned.

(Photo portrait of Elizabeth Bishop that hung in the EB House.
Photo by Brenda Barry)

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