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

Friday, August 5, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 18: (Re)Construction

On of the last things Bishop tells her aunt in the 28 August 1956 (besides the fact that she’d written “a long letter” to Aunt Mary, but had heard nothing) was that the “cook Maria had a miscarriage.” With what for some might sound like callousness, Bishop observed, “we were awfully glad, I’m afraid.” Maria recovered quickly. Remember, there was already one baby, Betty, who was “trying so hard to talk — she uses all the gestures already — and is adorable.” Just before signing off “With lots of love, and please write,” Bishop wrote, “I do hope Phyllis is well.” Grace’s daughter Phyllis was just about due to have her second child.

This subject, important to Bishop, was taken up at the beginning of her next extant letter dated 19 October 1956: “I got the little announcement about David Alexander.” Bishop thought it a good name, “nice and Scotch.” Bishop didn’t meet Phyllis’s children until 1970, when she was finally back living in Boston and taking annual trips to Nova Scotia. Her first gift to the then 14 year old David Alexander was a Grateful Dead album!

Grace had obviously filled Bishop in on the activities of her cousin’s family. “Ernie is doing very well, isn’t he.” Ernest Sutherland was a World War II veteran who became a contractor and builder after the war. He was one of the first North American contractors to build wooden, pre-fabricated houses in Palestine during the late 1940s. The post-war boom also saw much housing construction throughout Nova Scotia and Canada, and the Sutherland family moved numerous times during the 1950s and 1960s, before settling in Balfron, N.S. Bishop was always interested to hear where they had gone and what they were doing, and Grace was always keen to tell her.

“Ernie’s” construction work intrigued Bishop because the house at Samambaia was still under construction. She told her aunt that Lota was hoping to finish the house “inside another year.” There was some delay because “costs have gone up here about five times since she started,” meaning that Lota was “paying exactly five times as much for a bag of cement, for example.” (Construction issues in Brazil seem perpetual — one of the biggest issues for the Brazil Olympics, which begin today, is the state of the athletes’ accommodations, conditions which have made the news around the world. But, then, such colossal international events put a strain on all the cities in which they are held. In Canada, Montreal’s 1976 Olympics are still notorious for “the Oval,” a monstrous building that never really got finished and was a kind of blight on the cityscape for decades, or, as Wikipedia characterizes: a white elephant.)
(Patio of the house at Samambaia, 1999,
taken by yours truly during my trip.)
Grace was also preoccupied with housing. Clearly, she’d been thinking out loud to her niece in a recent letter, as Bishop responds: “I think it is a very good idea for you to have a small house of your own.” Bishop urged her aunt to plan for her “retirement” and commiserated with Grace about living “with all those other people” (meaning the big Bowers family at Elmcroft). “The older one grows the more privacy one needs (I find).” Bishop mentions that Marjorie Stevens had “remodeled a little old place in Key West for herself,” having secured a “government building loan” to do so. Might it be possible for Grace to get such a loan? Bishop remembered a small house on the Elmcroft farm and asked, “Have you considered remodelling that little house down the road where you & I stayed, or is that too far from the big house?”

Grace’s living arrangements remained fluid for some time, as she continued nursing work, sometimes going back to the US. In any case, Bishop was concerned enough for her aunt’s future that she offered to help, eventually: “either with the down-payment or with the installments,” if Grace chose to buy or build a house. This support could not be immediate because she was paying back the loan she had taken from a US bank to invest in a “real-estate enterprise” in Brazil, “that should start paying off in three years, until then I have to pay a big interest every month, of course.” She hopes she will “get rich,” but also acknowledges that she might end up “just as poor as ever to the end of my days.”

Besides the investment scheme, which clearly was the long view, Bishop told Grace that since she’d finished the translation of Mina Vida de Menina, she was working on “some stories and if all goes well — and I sell the translation, too (2½ years work) — I should have more money pretty soon.”

Bishop urged her aunt to “tell me the details” of her hopes and plans so she could “day-dream about your house — I adore planning houses,” and to keep her informed about her “pension situation” and assured her aunt that she wanted to help, “My idea all along.” These hopes, ideas, plans unfolded over the course of the next several years, though it appears Bishop couldn’t or didn’t need to provide Grace with this kind of on-going support, when Grace reached finally retired in the late 1960s. Besides, Grace was a feisty and independent woman, whose children faithfully supported her in her retirement years.
(Pilgrims, many who trekked up the mountain,
to visit Lota’s house at Samambaia, 1999.
Photo by Ann Marie Duggan)
The next post offers a glimpse of Bishop’s opinions about the television and the perennial subject: weather.

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