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

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 143: Babies and Birmingham

Bishop’s relatively short 16  May 1963 letter to her aunt wound down with four brief paragraphs, each dealing with a different subject. The first was an update on a recent development: Mary Morse’s “second daughter.” Bishop wondered if she had told Grace how it had happened. The infant ‘was about 30 hours old” when Mary got her. Bishop wished “she’d waited a bit but she wouldn’t.” the child’s biological “mother is supposed to be handsome,” Bishop reported. Bishop had already seen this child, named Martha, who “had a lot of hair and long eyes.” She could tell even at that early stage that this child “will be bigger than Monica.” These few details and suppositions were all Bishop “could tell at first look,” which had been brief. She and Lota were “going up to Petropolis tomorrow and see her again.” Her arrival was still very recent; Martha would “be a month old Monday,” Bishop noted.

Then Bishop shifted focus back to her aunt and asked, “How are all the grandchildren?” She wasn’t sure how many Grace had, “Is it six now, or about to be six?” Her greatest concern was for Mariam, and she declared that she felt “better about her since I saw the picture -- & she looked ‘alert’.” She stated unequivocally that “love and patience will work wonders,” and archly noted that “Phyllis is a bit more human than some other cousins I could name!” She probably meant cousins on both sides of her family, but in light of her earlier comments, she most likely meant Elizabeth Ross Naudin, in particular.

And then, as if just to make conversation, wanting to linger a bit longer, she remarked, “I’m glad you left Birmingham when you did.” Civil rights unrest in Alabama was making the news and bishop was following some of it, even at that distance. “Here’s the latest,” she wrote – about “the Negro writer [James] Baldwin,” who Bishop had “just met” (though she doesn’t say when and how) and who she admired “very much.” She observed that this “tiny man, rather timid” was “in an awful spot.” But that was it. Bishop didn’t elucidate, perhaps because she felt Grace might already have the background.
She shifted quickly to the final paragraph, reporting that there was “light rationing in Rio every night for half an hour or more.” She commented on how “strange” it was “to be eating dinner on the 11th floor with a candle – or an oil lamp.” They had brought two of the oil lamps they had in the country because “most stores are all sold out, of course.” The breaks in electricity were clearly not timed regularly because “people keep getting stuck in elevators.”

Before she signed off for good, she reported that “Lota hasn’t shown up for dinner yet.” As she typed these words the phone must have rung. Bishop scribbled an “Oh” in the left margin and typed right next to it that Lota had “just called from the governor’s palace and she’ll be home ‘late’.” That meant, as Bishop concluded, “2 A M probably.” Stuck home alone, she resolved to “try to do a bit of work.” There is one more sentence to this letter beginning “I do hope…,” but it is cut off the photocopy I have. I can just see the top of her scribbled signature.

Less than a month later, 10 June 1963, Bishop wrote to her aunt again. The next post will pick up the narrative.

Click here to see Post 142.

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