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

Monday, September 6, 2010

First Encounter XXVIII: In the Village, by Cathy Fynn

I learned about Elizabeth Bishop from a writer friend who had spent a week at the house in Great Village. I assumed it was a sort of halfway house for writers – a place to kick start the writing habit. I was ripe for rehabilitation, having been hooked on trying to write the same story for 20 years.

I met with Sandra Barry at the Bridge Street CafĂ© in Sackville. Over a 2-cup pot of Earl Grey, Elizabeth Bishop came to life. How had I missed such poetry? Where had Elizabeth (and Sandra) been all my life? (I’m sure every EB newbie says this.)

Now I was really excited, and intimidated. I hadn’t had a poem published since mom sent my 27 stanzas of rhyming couplets about the Kennedy assassination to the Telegraph Journal. It got rave reviews, but that was 1963 and I was 8 years old.

And did I mention that I was afraid of being alone in a strange house? Having grown up with eight siblings, many of us sleeping in the same bed, I never got used to sleeping solo (which did get me into trouble growing up, but that’s another story).

EB was an astonishing poet, but she was also a Maritimer. She would have understood my reticence (and my preoccupation with place) and welcomed me graciously. So I pack up my MacBook and a package of index cards and head east.

Forty-five minutes later, I’m standing in the driveway, feeling like an interloper. The man staring at me from the service station across the street doesn’t help. Now he’s walking towards me, wild hair flying out from under his ball cap. I jump in my car and lock the door. (I know, I really ought to get out more.)

He knocks on my window. “I’m Rick. Do you want me to mow the lawn?” I resume breathing. Rick is looking for odd jobs, assuming that I was a caretaker of the house. He tells me about the community, the history of the place, and introduces me to the two guinea hens, known as the village idiots.

Priding myself on surviving the first crisis, I pick some tulips from a bed along the verandah and go in to make tea. I fall instantly in love (with the house – the tea isn’t bad either). I immerse myself in the shelves of books by and about Elizabeth Bishop. My writing can wait; this is real treasure.

I stop reading at midnight and vow to start my writing in the morning. I spread out my index cards on the dining room table and climb the steep, shallow stairs. I go directly to the big bedroom at the end of the house, glancing sideways into EB’s room, half-expecting her to be sitting up in bed reading under her skylight.

For some reason, I’m not afraid at all. The house hums, the furnace grunts and I settle into an easy sleep.

The next day I make an obligatory visit to the antique store behind the house. (When one is faced with a pile of blank of index cards and a three-story barn of old things, there really isn’t a choice.) In one of the back rooms, a 1940’s chiffon wedding gown hangs in the corner.

A man about my age (I think everyone is my age and my height) is bent over a glass cabinet of military medals. “Do you think that will fit me?” I ask him, nodding at the dress. Absurd question. He replies: “Planning on getting married are you?” Fair question. “No, I’ve already done that twice.” “Well,” he says, “Then you’re all practiced up.” He winks and I take the dress.

As I get out my credit card, I ask the storeowner about the gown (he’s definitely younger than I am.) “Things come and go here,” he says, “but I think it’s from Schubenacadie. Yeah, I remember now. This gown was never worn. The lady’s fiancĂ© was drowned and she never married. Never left the house again.”

Back to the house to stare down my demons. My mother also suffered from mental illness when I was a child. And although I didn’t lose her, she was lost most of the time – hospitalized, drugged or depressed. Maybe that’s why I kept going over the same story – trying to find some clue I missed that could have changed things.

In this house I don’t sense any of the desperation, fear or loneliness that Elizabeth must have experienced – none of the detached, other-worldliness of her poetry. I imagine the horror of her mother’s scream but there is no echo of it in the walls. Perhaps even houses have selective memories.

By the end of my stay I have become unstuck – learned to separate the life from the story. The life may be sad, but the story can be good, the writing rich and resonant. Elizabeth Bishop is a testament to triumphing over ‘tiny tragedies’.

By the way, the wedding dress fits (well, close enough). I went back to the antique store to thank the gentleman of the military medals for his help. His name is Walter Millen, or Water Melon as his friends call him. He said he would perform the ceremony, but I think both the dress and I are happy with where we’ve landed.

Cathy Fynn is a writer who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick.

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