"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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Friday, December 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 91: Florence and Miriam

The next subject of Bishop’s long letter of 26 August 1961 was Aunt Florence. She told Grace that she “had a letter from Kay yesterday,” one of the Bishop cousins, and reported that “apparently the hospital or nursing home where Aunt F is has now improved a bit.” She also noted that another cousin, Nancy, “drops in just about every day, I think,” which meant for Bishop that “she really gets the worst of it.” She reiterated that she would “go there” when she visited the US later in the year, perhaps more out of curiosity than any great concern for Florence or the cousins, about whom she declared that “they are all so suspicious in that family and eager to get a little money.” The irony here was that Bishop thought “poor old Aunt F” had little left, “almost nothing … by now.” What she found hard to “endure” was “all the gossip about what Cousin Priscilla did with the diamond wrist-watch and so on … Who cares. I certainly don’t.” What she claimed mattered to her most was seeing “if she is getting fairly decent care, that’s all,” acknowledging that this elderly relative “is absolutely impossible, it seems, to deal with — more so than ever.” It had been “eight months” since Bishop had last heard directly from Florence and she figured that was “for good.”

The next subject, news from Grace, was more sensitive and worrying for Bishop, and concerned “little Miriam,” something that sounded “so awful it is hard to believe.” Bishop does not spell it out, but it would have been the diagnosis of Down syndrome. Grace perhaps had encountered such children during her long obstetrics practice and assured Bishop that the doctor indicated “it is extremely mild,” prompting Bishop to declare, “oh I do hope so.”

The understanding of this condition was certainly not as advanced and comprehensive as it is today, when many people with this condition live long, busy and productive lives.* At that time, fear of the unknown and of those who were different, generated all manner of labels. Even for someone as intelligent as Bishop, the language she used (of the time) makes us cringe today.

After acknowledging this news and her worry/hope, Bishop observed that “if the baby’s head is well-shaped that sounds as if it must be very slight — the real cases have pointy heads, I think.” Oh dear. Even if this case was “slight,” Bishop still saw this condition as “rotten luck,” and extrapolated to “what a rotten place the world is anyway — sometimes!” She was reassured by the doctor, who sounded “as if he knows what he’s talking about … And who knows? — they do such wonderful things now,” and speculated that perhaps “in a year or two they might make some new medical discoveries about that — and cancer, too, we trust.” (Grace’s operation to remove a growth had the spectre of cancer around it.)

These ponderings prompted Bishop to add a parenthetical aside about a task she was commissioned to do while in N.Y.: “get a supply of a drug that one can only get in the U.S. for the epileptic sister of my dressmaker … a wonderful woman who keeps the whole family going).”

These complex, difficult issues (both the particular and the general) triggered by the news about Miriam turned Bishop’s thoughts to the equally complex and difficult issues around child-rearing and parenting, about which Bishop had many thoughts and ideas — a subject actually quite important to Bishop. The next long paragraph in this letter is a treatise on the subject and will comprise the next post.


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*Note: Like Bishop, who met her for the first time in the early 1970s, Miriam was the first person I ever met with Down syndrome, though I had heard about this condition. Miriam was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known and we had a special bond, having been born almost at the same time. Miriam’s condition brought her many limitations, but she was as active a family member as any of the other Sutherlands (after all, we all have limitations of one kind or another, some more visible than others), and she was, arguably, the most loved and loving member of her family. She remembered everyone’s name and their birthdays. She loved going to camp and any kind of celebration, especially her own birthday and Christmas. Her favourite singer was Rita MacNeil. She was known and loved by all in Tatamagouche where she lived for the nearly four decades of her life.
(Miriam Sutherland in her den at her home in Balfron,
near Tatamagouche, 1990s. A photo of Rita MacNeil is
on the wall behind her, along with a photo of her cat.)

A recent example shows how people with the challenge of Down syndrome can live perfectly normal lives: this year, Will Brewer became Halifax’s Town Crier, the first Town Crier in Canada with Down syndrome. Wouldn’t Miriam be thrilled.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 90: Reiteration and Clarification

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 26 August 1961, just two weeks after the last one. It was prompted by the receipt of a letter from her aunt dated 13 August, written just a day after Bishop’s last, so they crossed en route. She was at Samabaia where they had gone “for the week-end last night.” She had found Grace’s letter “at the P.O.” It took less than two weeks to make the journey, surely not that long considering the distance. The content of Grace’s letter and the fact that she was up in the mountains away from Rio, a place where she could relax more easily, meant Bishop had the time and inclination to respond at length and this letter was the longest she wrote since January.

Because of the cross purposes of the sending and receiving, news often required reiteration and clarification. Bishop realized that she hadn’t been “clear enough in my letter,” that she was “going to come to see you no matter where you are — either Montreal or N.S.” For Bishop, “one is just as easy as the other … in fact Montreal is easier, I suppose.” It was only “1½ hours by plane from N.Y.” to Montreal. Mary Bulmer Ross lived there, so Grace would be visiting her younger sister. The timing for this possible visit would have to work around Mary’s own visit to Brazil, which was taking place towards the end of September or early October. Bishop’s trip to New York City was tentatively scheduled for sometime in October. Bishop urged Grace to “by all means go” to Montreal, if you feel like going.” She clearly was factoring in a visit, a prospect that made the New York sojourn more palatable.

Bishop had also heard from Aunt Mary, who said “you have lots of friends near her there.” Prompting Bishop to think that going to Montreal “might be more of a rest than staying at home,” where she was involved with Phyllis’s busy family, and a host of relatives.

Bishop reiterated that she would “have to work hard with that damned LIFE magazine for about three weeks, probably,” but assured Grace that she would “fly up to spend a few days with you wherever you may be,” once the work was done, “as soon as I can.”

The other plans for the New York trip were also rather up in the air, Bishop noting that “Lota said she wouldn’t come to the US with me,” because “the exchange is dreadful.” Bishop was hoping, however, that Lota would “change her mind” because she would “need her moral support while ‘revising’ my little book.” The fact that “an old friend of mine” had offered “her and her husband’s studio apartment in Greenwich Village” (this was LorenMacIvor and Lloyd Frankenberg*), as “they are in Europe,” made Bishop hope even more that Lota would reconsider because it meant “a big saving.” Bishop’s own travel was covered as well, so all these inducements made Bishop “hope Lota will come.” Lota herself had friends “near N.Y.,” who she could visit while Bishop went to Canada.
(Loren MacIvor)

Even if Bishop and Grace could have talked directly, there were so many factors to consider in these plans that it took several more months for them to set up, and in the end, things did not turn out as expected or desired. One of the factors was Grace’s health herself. Bishop confirmed that she had got her aunt’s “first letter about the operation,” and was “relieved to hear at least it wasn’t any worse,” even as it was “bad enough, all right.” She wondered if Grace had “to keep going back for tests, etc? — I imagine so.” She again urged her beloved aunt to “take care of yourself,” and concluded this part of the letter with “Thank God it wasn’t any worse.”

With all of this travel reiterating and clarifying done, Bishop shifted to that other aunt of infamous distinction: Florence. The next post will update that situation and upsetting news about little Miriam.


(*Note: Bishop had known Loren MacIvor, a painter, and Lloyd Frankenberg, a poet, for many years. They lived on Perry St. in Greenwich Village in a storied home. Click here to read more — keep reading this interesting article and Bishop will appear.)