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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Perfectly at Home" by Moya Pacey: An Elizabeth Bishop House memoir

I was invited to stay in the Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, when I won the EB Centenary Writing Competition in 2011. Coming to the house to stay for the EB Centenary Arts Festival was for me a rare gift. I was taken completely by surprise, when I received the email in May 2011 telling me I’d won, as I’d almost forgotten my entry posted off earlier in the year after I’d seen the competition advertised on the Internet. I came across the competition when I was surfing the net for a reference for a Bishop quote. I was working on a prose and poetry memoir I’d begun, as part of a thesis for an MA in Creative and Life Writing, from Goldsmiths College in London, the previous year.

When I arrived in Great Village, I came to a celebration, not to a writers’ retreat, and I was surrounded by people and social get togethers, so I think it was the very opposite of a typical writer’s experience of staying at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Writers normally seek a respite from the world of social activities and routines and welcome the solitude of the house and its environment to think and read and work alone. The visitor’s book, in the house, is full of comments from writers and artists thankful for the opportunity to get away and have the opportunity to do nothing other than focus on their own creativity. But my stay was completely different. The celebrations brought many, many people into the village to acknowledge Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotian family ties to Great Village and its environs. People, like me, who knew her work well, but others too like Sterling Dick, who I met at the Great Village post office on my first walk around the village. He asked me who Bishop was and why all the fuss. And what a fuss and what a festival it was: evening musical concerts in St James’ church and in homes around the village, art shows and readings, buggy rides around the village, a build your own canoe and sail it race, a blueberry afternoon tea, poetry workshops, and suppers. Great Village was crammed full of visitors and lovers of Bishop’s work and the EB house was open to the public and filled every day with visitors who drank pink lemonade and ate delicious scones. 
 (Sandra and Moya in the dining room of the 
EB House, August 2011. Photo by Carmel Cummins)
But staying in the house also offered me another gift beside the invitation to celebrate the centenary of Bishop’s birth. It gave me the chance to feel very close to Elizabeth Bishop, the person not the poet, and particularly to immerse myself in her life-long preoccupation with the idea of ‘home’. In her Vassar Year book, kept in the EB house, she writes that Great Village, Nova Scotia, is her home.  It is where she lived as a young girl with her grandparents and her mother after her American father died. She stayed on there after her mother suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the hospital in Halifax. She visited the house frequently when she was sent to live with her American relatives and travelled back and forth over the border into Canada. Her poem “The Moose” was written on one of these journeys from Great Village via New Brunswick across the border into the US. Her words: “Home made, home made! But aren’t we all” are inscribed on the memorial tablet in St James’ church.

Great Village was her home. But Bishop was a traveller and, like me, she moved continents. She felt deeply that sense of displacement common to all who move away from their birth places and countries. It was compounded in her case by the loss of both parents when she was a young child.  When I read her prose and her poetry and what has been written about her life, I get a real sense of a woman who was constantly searching to find that which had been lost and the pressing need to reclaim it again for herself.  Staying in the EB house was very important for me as I came to feel a deep sense of kinship with the child Bishop was and then the woman she became and this has given me a greater understanding of her writings and also a deeper insight to my own preoccupations with needing to reclaim my own childhood memories and write about them. 

Like Bishop, I lost a hemisphere too when I moved from England to live in Australia in my late twenties. Staying in Bishop’s childhood home, and being immersed in her childhood experiences, vividly brought to life during the Festival, took me back to my own childhood home. Even though the Bulmer House is very far away from the house I grew up in as a child on a post-second-world war housing estate in the north-east of England. I slept in Bishop’s childhood bedroom at the front of the house with the small bed pushed up close under the slanting blue wall and linoleum covering the floor, and a cotton quilt on the bed with carefully patched eight-pointed stars all askew like the room itself. Bishop remembered it tilting. Above the bed was a small skylight window. Through it I caught glimpses of the starry night sky outside and was transported back to my own childhood bedroom. Mine was a small boxroom fitted in behind the stairs and my casement window opened out on to a view of a small green field. I watched the moon from that window and it was the same moon Bishop watched. The same moonlight shone through the windows of both our childhoods.

My stay in the house illuminated my own childhood memories of home. And I’m sure that the friendship, hospitality and generosity of the people I met in GV helped me reclaim this strong sense of feeling so completely ‘at home’. Bishop’s maternal grandfather’s words came fully alive for me during my stay: “Speak to everyone you meet.” This is the real sense of the house for me because it seems to me that so many people who have come to the EB house over the years have experienced this warmth and nurturing and fellowship in Bishop’s childhood home. Even when the house was empty of people, as it was on the first night of my stay there — when I was alone for a couple of hours, I felt content and settled. I wrote in my journal:  

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, one of the co-owners of the house, has left with me. The house quietly settles as I listen to a concert from Montreal on the radio. I feel perfectly at home…

Moya Pacey
Guest at the EB House September 2011

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