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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters to Aunt Grace – Part 8: Ushering in 1956

How long does it take you, in January, to remember to write the new year, rather than the old one? In January 1956 it took Bishop well into the first month to make the switch. On the second letter to Grace in the Vassar folder for 1955 (EBP I, 25.3), Bishop typed “January 18th, 1955.” What she meant was 1956, as the letter clearly continues the back-and-forth narrative of the 19 December 1955 letter already discussed in this series. That Bishop didn’t ink in a correction suggests that it might have been even longer before she made the switch.

As will be my general method, again, I am going to pick out various elements of this letter and ponder them in some detail in the next few posts. Bishop introduces several new subjects (or, rather, continues with ones that were not mentioned in the December letter — though clearly they are familiar and on-going topics between niece and aunt). In this post, however, I follow up with subjects already discussed in previous posts. Bishop ushered in the new year by updating Grace about these various matters.

This letter was not the first communication written and sent by either Bishop or Grace. Bishop mentions having written “a hectic little note the other night,” which she had mailed to Brookline. But a letter from Grace, written on 9 January and just arrived, informed Bishop that she was back in Nova Scotia, staying with her daughter Phyllis: “I am somewhat relieved to hear!” Bishop wrote, “I didn’t like to think of you off galivanting [sic] with the roads the way they’re apt to be this time of year.” (One thing clearly evident from their correspondence is that letters between Bishop and Grace often crossed in the mail, so there was a certain expectation of delayed reaction. We have forgotten this kind of rhythm in our instantaneous communication when we are expected to know things before they happen!)

There was a holiday tradition, still in effect when I was a child, of showing visitors one’s gifts, which were kept under the tree well into the New Year (on my paternal side, it was until Epiphany). Since Bishop and Grace were so far apart, Grace did her show and tell in her letter, a list of the gifts she had received. Bishop responded to this list with, “I read your last present as ‘two bottles of urine’ the first time.” Perhaps someone can suggest what this gift might actually have been! Two bottles of wine?
(Not so distant from Bishop and Grace’s 1955
Christmas is this one from my family in 1959,
with my older sister amid the family’s gifts.)
Bishop also updated her aunt about progress on the architecture book with Henrique Mindlin. This “enormous undertaking” still entailed “a staggering amount of work,” for which Mindlin was totally responsible, “with my ‘editorial’ assistance,” as Bishop described it. She reported, with relief, that they were “finally getting it into shape.” She said she had lost eight pounds “so far” and declared “NEVER AGAIN.” She also noted that the book would be “very de luxe,” and would sell for $12.50 “or even $15.00” and was “going to be translated into four or five languages.” Bishop concluded this update with “I’m sure you’re bored to tears” by this subject, with the defense that she hadn’t been able to think about “anything else for five weeks now.”

The next update was about Aunt Florence. Bishop had received a letter from her cousin Kay Orr Sargent, informing that Florence had been difficult over Christmas. The new apartment was comfortable and spacious, but Bishop felt a nursing home would have been “better all around.” It wasn’t clear if Grace would be going back to Massachusetts to nurse, but Bishop advised that if she did Grace should limit exposure to “Bishop family fights.” Calling now and then on Florence would be the best approach. Prompted by Grace’s own declaration, Bishop concluded, “I hate Worcester, too, and don’t blame you for not wanting to go there — I’ve always thought it was a depressing city, but maybe just because I have depressing associations with it.”

For good measure, Bishop urged Grace to report the treatment she had received from Crotched Mountain Hospital to the American Medical Association, and hoped that she would “get that pay out of them.” Perhaps Grace did so. I can’t remember now if future letters refer to this matter. Time will tell.
 (The myth of air travel in the 1950s-1960s)
Finally, Bishop told Grace that Marjorie Stevens was still “planning to come in March, probably.” Air travel in 1956 was still rudimentary, and the flight to Brazil took 24 hours. When Bishop and Lota had visited the US in 1952, their return trip was “16 hours late, so you can imagine what that was like.” Bishop coped by drinking all her and Lota’s allotment of champagne and cocktails. The myth of glamorous air travel in the 1950s and 1960s did not make its way into Bishop’s narrative at any point. Indeed, she maintained a dislike of and remained afraid of flying her whole life.

In the next post I will ponder Lota’s “granddaughter” and the other children in the household at Samambaia at this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment