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

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 56: Gifts

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 25 March 1960. Nearly two months had passed, but this gap was not empty, because Bishop opened with an immediate and direct acknowledgement of her own steady correspondence and for gifts from her aunt. Bishop started, “I seem to be writing to you every day this week” (alas, it appears that these communications have vanished). She then explains that “this [the letter she was then writing] is just to say that your package did arrive, yesterday — Lota went to mail you my postcard and got it.”

As conscientious as Grace and Phyllis were in preserving Bishop’s letters, not all of them survived. Some were lost in transit. Some went missing because of Grace’s late-life peripateticism and Phyllis’s very busy household. It is a testament to how much these letters meant to both women that so many of them still exist.

A package was always most welcome. One of the items it contained was a book about Colchester County history written by someone with the last name of Crowe. I did an internet search to no avail. I also searched Elizabeth Bishop’s personal library listing at Vassar College, but found no candidate. I have sent a query to the archivist at the Colchester Historeum, who might be able to solve the mystery (if that happens, I will post an update). In any case, this book was a big hit: “Thank you ever so much,” Bishop wrote, “I read the book right straight through last night in bed (a cold rainy night and I was delighted to have something new to read).”

Those of us familiar with Bishop’s poetry immediately recognize a phrase in this sentence: “right straight through,” which recurs in her late poem “In the Waiting Room,” when a nearly seven year old Bishop sits in a dentist’s waiting room on a cold snowy February evening in 1918, reading a National Geographic “right straight through.” The poem was written many years after this unexpected encounter with Colchester County history: “so many of the names are familiar to me and of course I like anything about those ships.” As I have shown in Lifting Yesterday, Bishop’s poems and stories emerge from a vast, non-linear matrix: An original event was perhaps remembered in a later experience, which provided a phrase about the earlier event, which was then put in the poem many years later. Bishop was a recycling poet par excellence, with a phenomenal memory.

The other most welcome gift was something more ordinary: a petticoat sent from her cousin Phyllis. I had to go searching for just what this might be, and discovered all manner of images for such undergarments on the internet.
Essentially, it is what I grew up calling a slip, though they could be fairly elaborate. For me, this term is associated with a television show called Petticoat Junction, which ran from 1963 to 1970 (but set in an earlier time). Still, even in the early 60s, some women wore such clothing.

Bishop seemed quite pleased with this practical offering, assuring Grace that it was her size and to “thank Phyllis for me.” Scribbled in her indecipherable scrawl in the margin at this point was: “I’ll write when I find the address — no — here it is — I’ll write her.” This garment was “the kind I use here almost always (when I use any!)” — Bishop’s preference was slacks (even jeans). But she continued: “it is so much cooler under cotton dresses, in Rio — where it is so hot when we have to go there in the ‘summer’.” Then Bishop recounts a story, which could have applied to one of the “grandchildren”: “a friend made me one for Christmas and I ripped it all down one side climbing a fence to take a photograph, on my recent trip [Bishop took a trip “down the Amazon River from Manaus to BelĂ©m … in February 1960.” (Millier, 306)] … so at the moment I was petticoatless.” As other references in this letter show, Grace had already been told about this trip, perhaps in postcards. Bishop writes to Grace as if the knowledge and context were in place.

After the petticoat mishap story, Bishop again thanks her aunt and writes, “I wish I could send you things, but it is impossible unless I find someone going to Canada — which never seems to happen.”

Before shifting to her next major subject, Bishop returns to the book Grace had sent, wondering if her aunt knew “the Crowe man who wrote” it. She recognized so much: “All those names — Congdon, Crowe, etc — seem so familiar but I’m not sure I ever saw him,” meaning the author. As she started to turn away from the warmth of her response to this gift she concluded, “I do like it very much. And weren’t those females heroic?”

As the letter continues, Grace gets an update about the cook situation.

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