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

Monday, September 26, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 25 – Accounting for Christmas Past

Being the first epistle after Christmas, Bishop gave Grace an account of their holiday in the 10 January 1957 letter. “We had a very quiet Christmas,” she reported. Part of the reason was “it rained all day.” And they had only “two guests.” Lota’s gifts to Bishop were multi-cultural. They included “a beautiful red sweater (from Argentina).” Bishop noted that the “woolen things” from that country were “almost as good as English ones.” Then there was “an elegant gray silk umbrella (from Italy) and a cigarette lighter (from the U.S.).” Bishop’s main gift to Lota was far more practical: infrastructure, that is, “the shower-bath for the guest bathroom!” Clarifying a bit, Bishop noted she would be paying “for the booth, of chrome and glass.” In spite of their few guests over Christmas, Bishop observed that since they were “having so much company,” generally, Lota was “feeling desperate” about the bathroom, “other things, like floors, always seemed more important,” Bishop explained.

The other gift Bishop gave to Lota was “a bottle of brandy.” Lota loved “to make crepe [sic] suzettes (one of the few things she’ll cook — for Sunday night suppers),” so the brandy was for this culinary treat, as Lota was not much of a drinker (unlike Bishop).
Bishop then got to “the best part of our Christmas,” which was “giving presents to Betty,” the cook’s daughter and Bishop’s namesake. Even though she was still too young to understand “what it was all about” (“she’ll be 2 in February,” Bishop scribbled in the margin in her nearly illegible hand), she “opened everything very carefully and slowly, stared at it, and then looked at us with the most beautiful smile.” The gifts included a doll from Lota and “a dress and watering-pot” from Bishop. It seemed that Betty followed “the gardener around doing everything he does.” Betty also got “an adorable blue wool bathing suit” from “our friend Mary [Morse].” This suit had “white smocking and a white ruffle.”

Even their Rio friends sent along gifts for Betty because “they’ve all seen her and think she’s so cute.” This much doted on child “even went in the brook, finally, with two of her young aunts,” the day before Bishop’s letter was written. So familiar was she with Lota that whenever Betty saw her drive up in her car, she yelled “Totta! Totta!”

The only responses Bishop made to Grace’s account of her own Christmas (which, it appears, she spent in the U.S.) was to commend her for the thoughtful act of sending “poor Uncle George … a present” and to note that “your Christmas box sounded wonderful” (a gift which would have been sent from Grace’s daughter Phyllis Sutherland, as immediately after Bishop asks, “How is David Alexander?” Phyllis’s newborn son.)
(Wallace, Phyllis and David Sutherland, 2006)
Bishop told Grace that she had heard from Aunt Florence just the day before, on 9 January, and reported that she had been “in the hospital a few days, at Christmas time, with what she says was a ‘Gaul bladder attack’.” Bishop assured Grace, who clearly had wondered why she had not heard herself from Florence, “she certainly isn’t mad at you …. this time she’s been sick.” Bishop reiterated that Florence “always speaks of you with the greatest admiration, honestly.” Bishop was noticing that Florence’s correspondence had become more erratic, “sometimes she writes to me twice a week, and sometimes she forgets and doesn’t write for weeks at a time — and then blames me, usually — or the Brazilian mails!” Bishop suspected that she would hear from her cousin Kay Orr Sargent with an update.

It is not too strong to say that for much of her early life, Bishop hated Christmas, a time when immediate family gathers and celebrates. While she had extended family (and even some beloved maternal relatives), Bishop found this holiday season lonely. Even in early childhood, Christmas in her maternal grandparents’ home generated one of her most unsettling memories (“brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years”), which she wrote about in vivid detail in “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” her complex word-portrait of Arthur Bulmer. Undoubtedly, this memory came from the first Christmas after her mother was hospitalized, so Bishop was particularly fragile and vulnerable. The gist of this memory was Arthur dressed improbably as Santa Claus “cavorting” in the parlour, “terrifying” her and making her cry. Through her sobs, she suddenly recognized that this “dreadful figure … was only Uncle Neddy.”
(Arthur around the time of his “cavorting,” circa 1910s,
with his wife Mabel, their daughters Eleanor and Hazel)
As an adolescent and young adult, Bishop often spent Christmas alone, just trying to get through to New Year’s Day. It was only when she settled in Brazil did this holiday lose some of its darker aspects, at least during the 1950s, when her relationship with Lota was strong and reinforcing.

A good portion of the 10 January 1957 letter was about food. Post 24 described a remarkable outing in Rio focused on food, but the rest of the letter referred to more domestic fare. The next post will offer up some of this fare.

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