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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 37 – Crossing space and time

Over a month passed before Bishop wrote again to Grace, a letter dated 20 May 1958. Without Grace’s letters, it is difficult to keep track of the back and forth of their correspondence. The letters crossed real space (thousands of miles) and swaths of time (weeks, sometimes months). And Bishop, with her busy life at the house in Samambaia, often lost track of who owed a letter, and even when she or her aunt had last written. As a result, there is repetition in what Bishop wrote, since she was sometimes unsure if Grace had actually received her letters. It appears from what is extant that Grace received most of Bishop’s letters (though some of them went MIA over the decades of their correspondence) and faithfully preserved them. It is deeply unfortunate that Bishop didn’t manage to do the same, for reasons that will never be known, probably.

Bishop starts the May letter by declaring that is it had been “so long” since she heard from her aunt that she was “beginning to feel very concerned.” According to Bishop, her aunt’s “last letter was just before you went down to Key West.” Bishop again refers to the letter from Marjorie Stevens and its update. Bishop’s April letter had been sent to Great Village: “Perhaps I should have sent it to Phyllis?” (in Dartmouth, N.S.). She told her aunt that in that letter “I sent some clippings about the ‘Diary’ for you to see.” Bishop assumes the distinct possibility that Grace never got that letter. Bishop rationalized, “I think fat letters are the ones that get lost because someone at the P.O. thinks they might be worth stealing.” Here is a cynical view of the postal service. I must say that even these days, occasionally, I don’t receive my weekly copy of The New Yorker, kindly subscribed to for me by a dear friend in the US. When they don’t come, I am quite sure someone on the “inside” has taken it for their own edification.

We assume instantaneous contact and expect rapid response these days. Only those of a certain generation will remember the visceral nature of letter-writing, and how it fostered patience. But even Bishop could get wound up, and she was one of the most prolific letter-writers of the twentieth century, someone with vast experience of the postal services in Canada, the US, Europe and Brazil.

If indeed Bishop’s letter had gone astray, she noted that Grace “may think I’m the one who owes a letter.” Because no letter at Vassar contains the “clippings,” it is entirely possible that it did not reach its destination.

The one item from her April letter that she reiterated most fully was what Marjorie had written about Grace’s visit to Key West: “Marjorie … said you looked very chic — and was awfully sorry that she couldn’t do more for you, because you did so much for us that stay in G.V. long ago.” That stay was the summer of 1947, when Bishop and Stevens had spent time in Cape Breton and then some days in Great Village.

Turning to life in Brazil, Bishop assured Grace that “everything is fine here” except for the money. That is, “Brasilian money is slipping so fast it’s terrifying.” This slip was in relation to the American dollar, so for Bishop it wasn’t an issue. For Lota, not so good: “Poor Lota feels that she’ll never never see New York again.”

Bishop explained to her aunt that in 1952 “the dollar was worth 33 cruzeiros. Then for quite a long time it was worth around 65 or 70 cruzeiros. But now it is almost up to 150.” This inflation was “fearful for Brazilians.” But Bishop hoped that “it may only be temporary.”

Bishop also reported that the grandchildren had gone home. For a couple of months the house at Samambaia had been a veritable nursery school: “six small children … with Maria’s two — quite a lot of children!” In the end they “bought four tricycles.” Bishop’s namesake, Betty, was clearly Bishop’s favourite. She comes in for the most glowing accounts: “Betty is pretty as can be and very smart.” To demonstrate, Bishop noted: “A guest asked Betty if her sister could walk, and she said ‘Yes, she walks. You take her hand and she falls down.’ (I’m afraid this is funnier in Portuguese!).”

The extreme heat of the beginning of the year had eased and they were into winter. “I actually have on long red woolen underwear under my blue jeans,” Bishop reported. There was still heat “in the middle of the day but we keep a fire going all evening now and take hot water bottles to bed.” Bishop was quite happy with the colder temperatures because Brazil had had “three summers in a row, after all!” (meaning that the previous year and a half had record breaking heat).

Coming to the end of this short letter, Bishop told Grace that she recently found “a nice book called DOWN EAST on sale for $1.00.” Written by Sargent F. Collier, Down East: Maine, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, The Gaspé, was published in 1953 by Bishop’s first publisher, Houghton, Mifflin Company.

Bishop described it as “mostly photographs” and said that one of them, “View from Economy Mountain,” made her “feel quite homesick.” She then informed Grace that she had “almost finished a long poem about N.S. that I think I’ll dedicate to you, with your permission.” This must be “The Moose,” though it was not finished until the 1970s.
Signing off “With much love,” Bishop asked about Phyllis and her family and urged her aunt to “let me hear” how she was doing. Scribbled in the margin, Bishop put in an additional plea for her aunt to “tell me where I shd send letters.”

The next post brings Christmas around again.

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