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

Thursday, January 5, 2012

First Encounter XXXVI -- Moya Pacey visits Great Village

Elizabeth Bishop crossed borders and hemispheres as I have done to travel to Great Village in Nova Scotia from Australia via Europe and Newfoundland to attend the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival and read my short memoir : “My baby brother is born tonight.” It won First prize in the Open Section of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Writing Competition. I can hardly believe I am here in Bishop’s childhood home and tonight, I am alone in the house sitting at the desk reading a manuscript of Bishop’s that Sandra Barry has left with me. The house quietly settles as I listen to a concert from Montreal on the radio. I feel perfectly at home–as if I’ve entered an EB bubble…

The number on the white wooden front door of the Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia is 8740 and there is a capital B wrought into the metal plate fixed to it securely. The house is a surprise. From the road it looks small but inside it opens out and becomes a home not a museum. Bishop’s life and works are everywhere including quirky personal items: a blue coffee pot resting on the old stove, a pair of hickory across-country skis leaning up against the wall of the utility area, a purple drinking glass from Brazil, ornate and heavy, and a red calico fancy shoe bag that Bishop brought from the US across the border into Canada, on one of her frequent visits to her Aunt Grace in Great Village. It contained a piece of raw beef, bleeding blood into the heavy red cloth, for Aunt Grace to cook for their supper.

Art works and photographs crowd the walls including one of Elizabeth aged about four or five-years old smiling out at me. She has a pudding bowl haircut and wears a sailor suit with the tie knotted awkwardly around her neck, but in her Vassar portrait nearby, her smile is less forthcoming and her tie is carefully knotted. Great Village was the centre of Bishop’s childhood universe potent with memories. In her Vassar Year Book she gives Great Village Nova Scotia as her home. “Home made home made aren’t we all” is inscribed on her memorial tablet at St James church.

On my first night, rain falls on the house, but for the rest of my stay it is warm and steamy. I choose to sleep in Bishop’s bedroom, at the front of the house, (how could I not?). It is a child’s room with a single bed pushed up close under the slanting blue wall. Linoleum covers the floor, and there’s a cotton quilt with carefully patched eight-pointed stars all askew like the room itself. Bishop remembered it tilting. Above the bed there’s a small skylight window fixed shut, (once it was kept open by blunt-ended scissors). I catch glimpses of the starry night sky outside and on the night before I leave the Milky Way and the Plough are so close they seem to be in the room with me.

Across the road from the house is “The Esso Station” (now Wilson’s) but no, “dirty dog, quite comfy lying on the wicker sofa,” lies there now. The antique shop next door to the house was once the L.C. Layton Store. Meredith Layton tells me that her family remember going to help Gertrude Bishop on the day she had her final breakdown, after which she was taken to Mount Hope (the Nova Scotia Hospital) in Dartmouth, and Bishop never saw her mother again.

Upstairs from the window of the “Elsie Baker Reading Room,” a blue fish chair waits along with a tin basin, ‘shiny like the moon’ for a writer to sit and look out of the window that frames St James Presbyterian, now United Church, with its distinctive witch’s black hat spire. Here the Festival events are presented during the three days of non-stop activities which include historical tours, author readings and interviews, writing workshops, and concerts, and lots more.

“Speak to everyone you meet,” Bishop’s maternal grandfather instructed her. It is advice the Festival and I take to heart. And it is this generous hospitality and the good manners and huge commitment from the Bishop community that brings Great Village to life for me. That, and the encounters, chance meetings, and the many conversations I have over the days, I spend there. Encounters, such as the one with Bev the Great Village postmistress who introduces me to Stirling Dick a 92 year-old WW2 veteran, who tells me: he’s looking for a wife and doesn’t know who Elizabeth Bishop is or was and asks me, “Why all the fuss?” I meet sisters Jane and Esther at Anne Simpson’s poetry workshop held at a nineteenth-century, elegant, square, yellow house facing the Bay of Fundy. Afterwards, I am invited to share Jane’s birthday picnic with them in the grounds of St James church and I eat Willy Krauch’s smoked salmon for the first time. It’s famous and I am told that Pavarotti asked for it as payment when he sang at the Dalhousie Arts Centre in Halifax. I meet another local, Maxine Ryan, on a buggy ride around the village and she invites me to her home and gives me dinner and I see my first-ever humming bird in her garden. I meet Carmel Cummings, the Irish poet from Kilkenny, who’s staying at the eerily Gothic mansion, The Blaikie House, up the road. Laurie Gunn’s husband speaks so eloquently and movingly on the theme of “Home” at The Old Time Sunday Church Service that I find myself teary (and not alone either) because I’m kept busy dispensing tissues to my companions in the pew with me. Afterwards, at the blueberry tea, Barb and Sandy who seem to be everywhere during the Festival helping out, are beaming in their blueberry hats and their hunt for the elusive “blueberry grunt” recommended to me as “a must have treat” by the ladies from Truro at my table, is hilarious.

When it’s time to leave Great Village, I feel as if I don’t want to cross the iron bridge that “trembles” over the Great Village River where the water runs fast and brown. I am reminded that Bishop didn’t want to either on her way to the post office carrying a brown paper parcel, packed by Gammie with treats for her mother addressed to: “Gertrude Bishop at the Hope Sanatorium in Dartmouth.” But I must return home and leave the EB bubble and all those who were there inside it with me. Sandra Barry, the most generous of hostesses and a wonderful ambassador for the Elizabeth Bishop House and Great Village, Suzie le Blanc whose singing of Bishop’s poems set to music was sublime, Don McKay’s reading of Bishop’s “Sandpiper” at the house, Rosaria who came and spoke quietly to me about poetry on the back porch of the Bishop House are just a few of my many memorable encounters.

As Sandra drives me out of Great Village, I catch a glimpse of Aunt Grace’s house where Bishop caught the bus to New Brunswick – the journey which became after thirty-one years the poem, “The Moose.” She turns the car towards Halifax and leaves Great Village resting on the Bay of Fundy where the “Atlantic drains/rapidly backwards and downwards.” I’ve witnessed its fifty-three feet tides bigger than a four-storey building and its destructive carving through forests, “See those fir trees are not long for this world.” On the beach, Sandra points out a sandpiper looking like a grey stone. Others rise so fast I miss them. I see: “millions of grains… quartz grains, rose and amethyst”– and Sandra finds and gives me two blue stones. As I write, they are sitting on my desk at home in Australia, next to the pen holder complete with “moony Eskimos” stencilled on its surface. These are keepsakes redolent with the memories of my first encounter with the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia and with the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival but so potent is my first encounter that I do not need these objects to enter once more into that EB bubble. I have only to open Bishop’s poems and prose to cross over and enter: “I recognise the place, I know it…”

{Ed. Note: It was a great pleasure to meet Moya. We could not have had a better winner in the Adult/Open Category of the Writing Competition. She entered into the Arts Festival with gusto and spirit, and became part of the village instantly. We hope she will be able to cross hemispheres and visit us again. Click here to read some of her poems. The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia will be publishing all the winners of the Writing Competition, so you will be able to read Moya's wonderful memoir story eventually -- we will post a notice when that book is published. It looks like that will happen in 2013.}

Moya and Sandra at the Elizabeth Bishop House, August 2011. Photo by Carmel Cummins

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