"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, October 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 81: A Sensitive Matter

The next subject Bishop broached in her 30 January 1961 letter is a sensitive matter, brought up to give Grace the context for why it would prove difficult to have the Naudins visit Samambaia in the near future (after all Bishop’s talk about wanting to host them there). Bishop could have explained the situation briefly and left it at that, but she decided to give her aunt the details, some of which I will not include in this post.

Before launching into the story, Bishop wrote, “we wish you were here visiting us now.” One of the main reasons for this wish was because “there is a baby in the house again.” Their “proper Bostonian friend, Mary Morse, went and adopted one [a baby, that is].” Mary was the person Bishop has supplanted in Lota’s heart, yet Morse lived nearby all along and had been building a house “down below us.” This house was just “being finished,” though it would not “be ready [yet] for another month, at least.” As a result, Mary and the new baby were “living with us.” Whatever the complex relationship was among these three women, proximity remained.

The long paragraph that followed this set up is a detailed account of how 47-year-old Morse, “after talking about it for years,” finally decided to adopt a child, something she had “been negotiating … for ages.” Bishop explained to Grace that “the laws are like those in the US — you can’t adopt legally until you’re over 50, unless you are married, and Mary is an old maid.”

American film-maker Barbara Hammer’s documentary about Lota, Elizabeth and Mary (“Reaching for the Moon”) offers an interpretation of the process of this adoption. Some of it fits with Bishop’s account in this letter, some of it does not. Since this child, who was named “Mary Stearns Morse,” is still living (indeed, my age), I am uncomfortable about including Bishop’s account of her origins. Bishop told Grace that because of Mary’s age (under the legal limit), “this baby was located through various intermediaries and no one knew any one else’s name, etc.”

Hammer’s film shows Lota (and Elizabeth, if I remember correctly — it is some years since I saw the film) making the trip to pick up the baby directly from the mother (who is portrayed quite  differently from the person Bishop describes). Bishop wrote that they did go “down to Rio to see her for Mary, because we knew that even if the baby had four eyes Mary wouldn’t be able to resist her.” But she noted that “a friend of ours” had already picked up the baby and had her “checked out by one doctor.” When Lota and Elizabeth took possession of her, they “took her to our doctor, for a final check up.” All was well. Bishop declared her to be “a darling baby” between two and three months old. Her direct description of this infant is curiously expansive: “not pretty, but cunning; very bright, healthy, fat, and smiling, poor little thing.” Their doctor declared: “She has the best things of all — good temper,” because she hadn’t fussed when she was “prodded and poked” during the examination; rather: “she laughed.”

Lota and Elizabeth “drove her back to Mary, in the pouring rain, and announced ‘Here’s Monica’.”
(Mary Morse and Monica, 1961)
The next part gives an account of the baby’s mother and the unfortunate circumstances that required her to “give away” such a “darling.” Their Rio friend (the intermediary) “saw the mother (we didn’t want to) and said she was absolutely broken hearted about giving her up.” Bishop said it was obvious the infant “has been loved and well taken care of.” One can only feel sad for this mother.

Bishop knew Grace would understand the sad circumstances (akin to some of the situations she undoubtedly saw during her long nursing career delivering babies) and would be interested in the nature and well being of this little adoptee. Bishop reported that Monica “has been no trouble at all — sleeps like an angel, eats like a horse, wakes up laughing, and only cries when she’s wet or hungry.” She noted that this little person “act[ed] unhappy and frightened for about ten minutes every day at six — isn’t it strange?” Bishop had her own speculation as to why, based on the mother’s circumstances.

Finally, she declared Monica to be “a lucky child” because “Mary will adore her and she will be moderately rich, and get a good education, etc.”

I have omitted many of the more intimate details of this account, but clearly Bishop wanted Grace to know about this important development in their lives. She also told this story to her aunt because it explained why it would be hard to have all the Naudins visit: “Mary is in one of the two guest rooms and uses the extra bathroom for her and all the baby things.” Having more company right then would have been too much.

The next post will bring this heady letter to a close and hint at another, even bigger development unfolding in their lives in the first days of 1961.

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