"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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Monday, November 11, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 130: Monica, Florence, Roger and Zephyrino

The next paragraph of Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was full of family observations. It began with a report that she had “ordered ten of the ‘Peter Rabbit’ books for E’s daughters,” that is, Suzanne, Diane and Patricia Naudin The books “didn’t get there in time,” but rather reached her “in Cabo Frio instead.”

(Cover of one of the early editions of this
much beloved Beatrix Potter classic.)
Without pause or segue, Bishop then wrote that at the latter location (that is, Cabo Frio) there was “a big pointer dog … huge, named ‘Roger’,” a creature “adored” by Monica, Mary Morse’s daughter. They had gone to Cabo Frio, too, over the holidays for some fun. Bishop reported that at one point they found Monica “on the floor turning over pages for him to see the pictures in Peter Rabbit – very close to his nose.” The Naudin sisters were not the first to enjoy these Christmas presents. Bishop continued with Monica, who she noted again “adores the ocean” and who “only cried all ten days when we had to drag her away from the water.” Bishop described Monica as “very tiny – the dog could eat her in one gulp.” She reported, however, that Roger “seemed to like her.” Tiny Monica also loved to sing “Brazilian children’s songs at the top of her lungs – without words – but excellent pitch and rhythm.” Bishop claimed that she had “never seen a happier baby.” Bishop was clearly glad for this “little waif,” who she declared was “saved from the orphan asylum by pure luck.” Bishop did have a tender spot for all orphans, and she clearly “adored” this one. When people learned Monica’s story, she noted, they “take to her because of that.” Then Bishop reported that Mary Morse was planning on “adopting another one – as soon as she can find a white and healthy one.”

Another abrupt switch was signaled by her characteristic “//” The new subject was “the latest story of poor Aunt Florence.” This now quite elderly relative, with whom Bishop had such fraught experiences and memories (yet continued to stay in touch with and hear about), was “quite bed-ridden and pretty gaga.” One of Bishop’s cousins, “Priscilla[,] asked her what she wanted for Christmas.” This poor old woman declared: “A SCREWDRIVER!” The reason for this response was because there was “a thermometer on her wall, and it was hers, and she wants to take it off to take it back to Worcester with her.”* Poor old Aunt Florence indeed! There but for the grace of countless unknown forces and factors go each of us, especially these days, now that so many of us are living so long.

Another “//” signaled Bishop’s return to the here and now and her hope that her aunt was “well and that the weather is good there” (wherever Grace was). Bishop noted that they were “going to Samambaia tomorrow,” which meant she might “have a letter from you – I hope so.” She reported that Elizabeth Naudin was “in Teresopolis for 3 weeks, I think,” so the Peter Rabbit books would be even more delayed in reaching their intended recipients.

As her letter began to wind down, she said she had to” go out marketing to get ready for tomorrow.” Then another quick shift of subject, signaled by only “ – “ She told her aunt that she had just received a canary from “a man who works with Lota.” This fellow “raises them.” Said canary was “a very pretty one, orange, from Holland.” Undoubtedly, this little bird reminded her of Gammie’s and Aunt Maude’s canaries. To name him, Bishop “asked Lota what the man’s name was … it turned out to be Zephyrino.” This little creature was “very young, but sings quite a lot.” (Does this remind you of someone?) She noted that in the country they had cats, in the city, the canary, “well separated.” Again, like Roger, the cats could eat the canary in “one gulp.”

The last couple of sentences were typed on the vertical in the left margin. She quickly signed off “With much love, and thank you again Elizabeth.” This closing was not, however, the end of the letter. On the back of the page Bishop typed two postscripts, one quite lengthy, which filled the whole page. The next post will take up these addenda.


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*Note: Florence was clearly suffering from dementia of some sort, at an advanced stage. I have had enough experience with dementia – my mother suffered from vascular dementia and my father has Alzheimer’s – that I cringe when I read Bishop’s tossed-off term “gaga.” With her own mother’s mental and physical sufferings, Bishop was terrified she would lose her faculties. The understanding of serious cognitive impairments and illnesses have improved greatly since the 1960s, but even now, most people don’t understand dementia and are just as terrified of it as Bishop.

Friday, November 1, 2019

New book about Elizabeth Bishop's childhood


I am excited to share the news of a new book about Elizabeth Bishop for young readers. Written by Rita Wilson and illustrated by Emma FitzGerald, Nimbus Publishing will be launching this book early in December. I’ll be posting information about the launches when it is available. As far as I know, there is no other book about EB for young readers. It is especially important for young Nova Scotians to learn about her deep and abiding connection to Great Village and how it shaped her artistic sensibility and development. Both Rita and Emma have strong connections to the EBSNS, so the society is especially happy to support this important project. You can read more about the book on Nimbus’s website.