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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 120: More babies

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is dated from Rio, 3 April 1962, but the month is incorrect, based on something she wrote in the second paragraph. Bishop occasionally mixed up days, months or years (don’t we all!). She had received a letter from Grace, a significant enough prompt, but there was also family news to convey, which is where Bishop started — though in all likelihood, Grace had already heard the news (or would have by the time Bishop’s letter arrived).

Bishop reported that Ray Naudin “just called up to say that Elizabeth had had a successful Caesarian operation early this morning and had another little girl.” This child was their third and the name they chose “so far” was “Patricia Ray.” Bishop noted that “they may change the name,” but they didn’t. Bishop wasn’t too fond of the name Patricia, but she conceded that it sounded “nice with Naudin (better than the other little girls’ names do, I think!).” She then observed that in Brazil “there’s no such name as Ray,” noting that Brazilians would pronounce it “Rah-ee!” Her cousin “wants to spell it RAE,” though that would not change its Brazilian pronunciation. Fortunately, “Patricia is almost the same in both languages, which is useful for here.” Why the Brazilian “Ray” Naudin was so named, is unknown; but this third daughter was to be her father’s namesake.

Bishop reported that her cousin was “at the ‘Strangers’ Hospital’ — quite good one, run just like an American hospital,” and that she would “call on her” the next day. So typical was it of the era that even Bishop couldn’t help but say, “too bad she wasn’t a boy,” partly because “I think it’s to be E’s last.” All families wanted a son in those days, though Bishop noted that “Ray sounded very cheerful.”

Then Bishop turned to another family child: Miriam. The next paragraph is a lengthy explanation and clarification concerning something Bishop had written to Phyllis, whose response appears to have been defensive and expressed to Grace, who passed it on to Bishop in her most recent letter. Some letters to Phyllis exist, so perhaps the offending letter is extant, though I’ve never had these letters copied and sent to me (something I must rectify).

Bishop commenced by confessing that she had “mislaid your last letter, oh dear,” in which Phyllis’s offended sensibility was conveyed. She had “put it carefully with the others I meant to answer and left them all up in the country.” They had been at Samambaia for “a long week-end, over May Day” (hence, the month “April” being a mistake) and had returned to Rio the previous day. Even though she didn’t have Grace’s epistle at hand, she well enough “remember[ed] I did want to say something, though.” Her claim was that “I’m afraid Phyllis misunderstood what I meant about talking to the child analyst here about Miriam.”

Bishop had been eager for all news about this new family member, who was now nearly a year old, feeling concerned and hopeful about her development. Though childless, Bishop had had plenty of children in her daily life since moving to Brazil and she had strong opinions about parenting. Clearly, she wanted to be helpful and involved in some way in her Nova Scotia cousin’s life and had offered some advice or opinion. Yet, even the articulate letter-writer Bishop managed to offend. Though Phyllis was also likely quite sensitive about her new Downs Syndrome daughter, for which they had excellent care in place. In any case, Bishop noted the trouble by observing: “Letters are so dangerous that way!” This observation makes one think of today’s communications, the strange realm of email, texting and tweeting, which can cause all manner of misunderstanding.

Bishop pleaded with Grace to “tell her [Phyllis] for me,” that “everything she’s said about her doctor in New Glasgow sounds absolutely fine.” This doctor “sounds wonderful,” “right up to date,” and had “handled everything just as well as any doctor anywhere could.” Bishop assured Grace that she had “meant no criticism.”

Part of Bishop’s advice had been that Phyllis could consult with a friend of hers, someone who had once been “a practicing physician for a long time,” but who “got interested in psychiatry and went to England to study with this famous old lady, Dr. Klein.” She meant, of course, Melanie Klein, who was “now dead — who was recognized as the greatest child-psychologist in the world — honestly!” Bishop had had her own interest in Kleinian psychology in her 20s, when she was trying to figure out the impact of her childhood, and at a time when Klein was establishing herself. 
As for Bishop’s friend, his training with Klein was a rare matter, as “she didn’t take many student-doctors.” Now this friend taught “other child-doctors and psychiatrists — besides working with tiny children himself.” Bishop assured Grace that he was “probably one of the few such well-trained men around.” She felt that access to his expertise was “too good an opportunity” to miss; a mistake “NOT to talk to him.” Part of her argument was that consulting “anyone like him in Montreal or New York would cost thousands of $$$ probably.” Besides his impressive c.v., he was also “a neighbor of ours [on] week-ends and we’re friendly.”

Bishop reiterated that “Phyllis’s doctor is undoubtedly handling the baby just as well as anyone could,” and in the end “love is what really counts.” Even so, Bishop “thought Decio (my friend’s name) might have some ideas from the psychological side.” Perhaps he might “know some ways of teaching her how to learn more quickly, how she can be educated to get along as normally as possible.” This kind of thing was “exactly his line of work.”

Bishop paused at this point with a characteristic “Heavens.” And an assurance that she did not “want to be interfering!” To bolster her good intention further, she noted that her friend “has a huge room filled with wonderful miniature toys and all sorts of things for working with … sometimes very disturbed children.” Moreover, he “is such a nice, kind man — small children adore him — (or he wouldn’t be in that line of work, after all.)”

Not wanting to make matters worse, Bishop asked her aunt if she should write again to Phyllis, reiterating that her cousin had “misunderstood what I meant.” She conceded that it likely “sounded odd” to suggest that Sutherlands “consult a Brazilian doctor,” yet he had “studied in England for 6 years,” and recently had “come back from giving lectures all over Europe on this very thing.” This “odd chance” that such an expert “happen[ed] to be a friend & neighbor of mine,” compelled Bishop to present her suggestion of a consultation. But she left it at that, the place where she acknowledged “from everything” Grace had told her, Miriam “has been treated in the best possible way ever since she was born.”

Space and time were effective barriers in terms of the practical side of things in this instance, but Bishop felt close and interested enough in her aunt’s family to want to offer some sort of contribution to this challenging situation. Happily, Miriam grew to be a wonderful human being and Bishop got to meet her in the early 1970s and they hit it off just fine.

The next part of this letter offered a number of updates, which will comprise the next post.

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