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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Lifting Yesterday — Supplement — Chapter 8: Reminiscences of “In the Village”

Chapter 8 of Lifting Yesterday is a compare and contrast exercise between two central Bishop texts. The first is an unpublished manuscript housed at Vassar College, written when Bishop was in her 20s, mostly during her time at Vassar. The second is her “prose poem” (Bishop’s term) memoir “In the Village,” written in Brazil in 1952–1953 and published in The New Yorker in December 1953.
In the Vassar College file list for the Elizabeth Bishop Papers, the first of the above texts is described as “Reminiscences of Great Village” (a name given to it by the archivist). In the early 1990s, I ordered a copy of the file list of the EBP from Vassar and as soon as I saw this title, I ordered a photocopy. Much of it is holograph and I spent months transcribing Bishop’s nearly illegible handwriting. As the transcription slowly accumulated on the page, I realized the full significance of this document: essentially, the first rendition of Bishop’s vivid memories of the breakdown of her mother in Great Village in 1916. I had already read “In the Village” and could see that this later version, highly refined with the passage of time and through aesthetic imperative, was a powerful artistic “echo” of her intense childhood memories, evolved from the raw and intimate words of the earlier version, transcending into something amazingly universal.

This supplement is a little story about “In the Village” and how Great Village itself learned about this story’s existence. One of my dearest friends in Great Village was Donalda Nelson, daughter of Donald and Alberta MacLachlan. Bishop was very fond of Don and Bertie. One of their oldest daughters, Margaret MacLachlan Motley, was a good friend of Bishop’s mother, Gertrude Bulmer Bishop. Bishop went to school with Muir MacLachlan (see her memoir “Primer Class” for a famous mention of Muir). Donalda herself, four years younger than Bishop, had memories of seeing Bishop walking the Bulmer cow Nelly to the pasture not too far past her family home (on Scrabble Hill Road in Great Village).

I met Donalda in the early 1990s, after she joined the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, when it was formed in 1994. Donalda was a wonderful person. Always welcoming, she had a deep knowledge of the history of Great Village which she generously shared. After having lived away from Great Village for many years, she and her husband, Harry Nelson, had moved back and lived across the road from her family home, where her sister Margaret lived, and beside her brother Muir and his wife Helen. Donalda lived in the lovely old house that had belonged to the Great Village postmaster during Bishop’s childhood, Angus Johnson.

Donalda, Muir and Margaret kindly allowed me to interview them (recorded on a cassette tape) a couple of times, sitting in the kitchen of the MacLachlan family home, with its old stone oven and open fire place. Margaret died not too long after these interviews. She was over 100. Muir died in 2003, well into his 90s. Donalda died in 2014, nearly 100.

As often as I could when I went to Great Village, I would visit Donalda. We would sit in her kitchen and have tea using “Margaret’s teapot,” a small earthenware pot painted a soft pink. It made the best tea ever. Donalda’s stories were always engaging and she was always keenly interested to hear about Elizabeth Bishop activities. Over the years, I took a number of people to visit her, including BBC Radio 3 folks, who recorded her playing the piano (Donald and Alberta MacLachlan were accomplished musicians and this musical ability was passed on to a number of their children, including Donalda).

Often, Donalda would bring out objects and items that were of keen interest to us both. During one afternoon visit in the mid-2000s, she left the room for a moment and returned with an item, “You might be interested in this,” she said. It was a copy of the 19 December 1953 issue of The New Yorker, in which “In the Village” appeared (in great shape, I might add). You can imagine my delight. Donalda told me that Margaret was living in New York City in the 1950s, where in December 1953 she discovered Bishop’s story. She immediately recognized the village. She mailed this very copy back home to her family.

I have no idea if Bishop herself mailed a copy of it to her beloved Aunt Grace (who also lived in the village at that time). None was in Grace’s possession when she died. So, this copy from Margaret to her family may be the first hint in the village that it had been immortalized in print. The MacLachlans kept it, all that time. It eventually reached Donalda. I was thrilled to see it and even more thrilled when she quietly said to me, “Would you like to have it?” It is one of my prize possessions.
I attended the memorial service for Donalda held in St. James Church on 1 August 2014. She had chosen the music for this service and each song was gentle and uplifting. So like Donalda to think of those who would gather, who would feel deep sorrow at her passing, that her final act was one of gracious consideration and comfort. I always uplifted after a visit with Donalda, and I left her memorial service feeling the same way. I will always be grateful for all the gifts she gave me.

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