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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 93: Politics and the art of complaining

The next subject of Bishop’s 26 August 1961 letter to Aunt Grace involved the political situation in Brazil, and how it meshed in Bishop’s mind with family. On 25 August 1961, Jânio Quadros, who became Brazil’s President on 31 January, “resigned.” Bishop described this event as “a big political upheaval.” Her response to this resignation was: “God knows what is going to happen next.” She had little “doubt the army will get in on it somehow.” Bishop described Quadros as “a wonderful economist … but slightly crazy, I’m sure.” She opined that his resignation “wouldn’t matter so much but the vice-pres.” (João Goulart), “is a real old crook, from the dictator-gang.”
(Jânio Quadros)
Even though she’d been in Brazil for a decade already, she was still an outsider and an American, so her views must be taken in that light. Still, she lived with Lota who was deep into all things political and Bishop reported that “Lota is terribly upset,” that “everyone is.” They were all “hover[ing] over the radio news.” Since Lota had just returned from town, Bishop noted that she would now “read the newspapers she’s brought back.” So uncertain was this situation, that Bishop observed: “We might even leave Brazil — who knows.”

After having lunch and reading the papers, Bishop was able to report to Grace that “the country is ‘remaining calm’ but there may be a civil war.” Not to alarm her aunt too much with such talk, Bishop quickly clarified that things were “all too confused” to know for sure what would happen, and besides, she noted, “things are never very bloody here, you know — there is no danger at all.”

Bishop’s first feeling was for “all my Brazilian friends and for the country,” for which she felt “dreadfully sorry.” Then, without any segue, Bishop brought up her cousin: “I didn’t see E last week — haven’t seen her for 2 or 3 weeks.” The Naudins had been “in Terezopolis [sic] for ten days.” Part of the reason for shifting to this subject was to describe Elizabeth’s and Ray’s different approaches to living in Brazil. Bishop observed that her cousin “is pretty good about things here.” It was her husband, a Brazilian by birth, who annoyed Bishop, even though she didn’t “see him much.”

To give Grace an idea of what she meant Bishop wrote, “Remember how Uncle George [Shepherdson, Maude’s husband] used to get on your nerves at the farm telling everyone how things were done so much better in the U.S.A.?” For Bishop that said it all, described Ray’s attitude completely. All these two natives of their countries (Canada and Brazil) could do was “complain, complain, complain.” For Bishop, this harping was “boring, and rather tactless.” She conceded that Ray was “a clever boy in his business … but he doesn’t seem to have any political sense whatever and says such stupid things — exactly like Uncle George!”

Bishop reasoned that since Ray was “brought up here … he ought to be bright enough to see there are very good reasons for the country’s being backward.” But the things he complained about baffled her: “is it so AWFUL, anyway, to have to wait a few days for car license…?” For Bishop, “endless criticisers [sic] always pick on the unimportant things.” She noted that they were expecting “another pair of them,” that is, “criticisers,” for dinner that day, “I’m dreading it.” One can’t help but think of Bishop’s own rather endless complaints about the Brazilian postal service, and how that must have sounded to Brazilians.

Bishop continued with the subjects the complainers complained about: “Yes — Rio is dirty … yes our friend the governor ought to do something about it.” But, she argued, “that isn’t the most important thing, after all!” And hadn’t the governor “built something like 50 schools already….”

Bishop seemed genuinely surprised and proud of the fact that her cousin “doesn’t complain much, thank goodness,” and seemed “to take things in her stride pretty well.” Bishop observed how upsetting it was for Lota to hear all the complaining, “naturally! — she’s not blind.” She recounted how “the wife of our (US) Cultural Attaché here told Lota all about the trouble she had with maids who stole, and how she bought some candy that had cockroaches in it,” telling Lota these things “as if it would amuse her!” All Bishop could conclude by such insensitivity was to assert, “And then Americans wonder why they’re not popular in foreign countries!”

All the exclamation marks in this lengthy paragraph bespeak Bishop’s emotion (annoyance, frustration, hurt) around these subjects.

This long meandering letter now began to wind down. The next post will offer her conclusion.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 92: Dr. Spock

The next part of Bishop’s letter of 26 August 1961 is a long paragraph about child rearing. I have always found it both fascinating and slightly amusing that Elizabeth and Lota, childless women, had such firm and involved views on parenting. But, I suppose, we were all children once, so have all experienced parenting in the most direct and intimate way, to which we all have a response and theories of what was right or wrong about our experiences. But Bishop didn’t just hold her own views, she also read about this subject in a direct and even serious way.

She begins the dense paragraph by asking her aunt if she “and Phyllis know all about Dr. Spock?” Benjamin Spock was the guru of child development and parenting in that day. Bishop noted: “everyone seems to read him these days,” and what with all the children coming and going in their household, she confessed, “I have kept a copy in my bedroom ever since Lota’s ‘grandchildren’ started to visit us.” She even reported that Mary Morse was raising her adopted daughter Monica “strictly according to Spock.” The book she was talking about was his The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care. Bishop noted that she “began with Betty, the little black girl,” that is, applying Dr. Spock’s methods.
She then wondered if Grace had seen a recent issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal with “an article by the same Dr Spock … about retarded children.” Well, that is not a term we’d use today, and it makes one cringe in the reading. Bishop clarified, “I never see that magazine but just happened to see that number at a friend’s house in Rio and thought it [the article] wonderful.” She wanted Grace to say if she had not seen it so that Bishop could “get if from her [friend] and send it to you — not to Phyllis, naturally.” Bishop felt that Spock’s “advice is so sensible,” so that “if things don’t develop too well for Miriam you could sort of hand it on to Phyllis bit by bit.” One does feel there are good intentions here.
The next part of the paragraph is Bishop’s synopsis of this article, which was about “two retarded children that had been brought to him [Dr. Spock], about the same age — who couldn’t go to regular school.” One of the children “came from a ‘good family’,” which meant “middle class … who were terribly upset and worried.” They “tried to force the little boy to learn how to read & write and keep up with the other children, etc.” The result: he “got worse.” The other child “belonged to ignorant Italian immigrants” (oh dear), “who could scarcely read or write themselves.” These parents had quite different expectations for their child and it was “no disgrace at all” for them to put the child “in special classes for backward children …. They loved him just the same.” It was sufficient that this child “grow up and be a laborer like his father.” The result: “of course, … the little boy improved — and was very happy, and the family was happy, etc.”

Bishop paused and apologized for “boring you,” if Grace had herself already seen this article, but she excused herself for the lengthy account because the article “was so good it made a big impression on me.” For Bishop, the lesson of the article was “just to take the child the way he is and don’t be disappointed if he turns out to be rather dumb.” Well, for someone as intelligent as Bishop, this whole subject, delved into in such detail in this epistle to her aunt, offers not only the idioms and understanding of the day, but also her own keen interest in the many facets of the subject. She is trying to understand something of the challenges not only for the general parenting of any child with challenges or special needs (even these terms are being shed these days), but also specifically trying to understand what her cousin Phyllis was facing and wanting to contribute information as a way to participate at such a distance.

In the end, however, Bishop had to concede, “Phyllis I’m sure is enough like you to take these things very well” — and Bishop was absolutely correct there. Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland were excellent parents to dear little Miriam, who, in spite of her challenges, had a busy, engaged life, even in the context of a wider society that was still struggling with its biases and prejudices about difference. Bishop’s hope was that Miriam’s issue was “very slight,” and “if the little girl looks all right — probably 90% of the population will never know the difference, anyway.”

Bishop couldn’t, alas, just let it end there and added a parenthetical account of “Marjorie Steven’s brother’s 1st baby — a boy,” who “was … some kind of idiot.” Again, oh my. She wasn’t sure what “type — a tragedy.” But she mentioned it to observe that “these things happen to everybody impartially, thank goodness.”

However we regard all these thoughts, ideas and speculations, in their day they were entirely within the spectrum of response, and probably on the end of the more liberal, accepting position. Knowing Phyllis as I did, I can attest to her utter acceptance of her daughter and her effort to give Miriam every opportunity to participate in daily life as best she could. When Bishop met Miriam in the early 1970s, I am sure she felt as I did (twenty years later), that she had met a remarkable person.

This part of the letter wound down with a promise to “try to write a note to Aunt Mabel this week.” That intention had been unfulfilled for some time. But she conceded that she was “up to my neck in work, of course, and away behind schedule.” Just at that moment, Lota appeared “for lunch — back form Petropolis.” Besides work and lunch, they also were having “company tonight and tomorrow — we wish we hadn’t.” They just wanted some quiet time with their “lonely” cats who were “so glad to see us back.”

The next part of this long epistle turned to politics and will comprise the next post.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 91: Florence and Miriam

The next subject of Bishop’s long letter of 26 August 1961 was Aunt Florence. She told Grace that she “had a letter from Kay yesterday,” one of the Bishop cousins, and reported that “apparently the hospital or nursing home where Aunt F is has now improved a bit.” She also noted that another cousin, Nancy, “drops in just about every day, I think,” which meant for Bishop that “she really gets the worst of it.” She reiterated that she would “go there” when she visited the US later in the year, perhaps more out of curiosity than any great concern for Florence or the cousins, about whom she declared that “they are all so suspicious in that family and eager to get a little money.” The irony here was that Bishop thought “poor old Aunt F” had little left, “almost nothing … by now.” What she found hard to “endure” was “all the gossip about what Cousin Priscilla did with the diamond wrist-watch and so on … Who cares. I certainly don’t.” What she claimed mattered to her most was seeing “if she is getting fairly decent care, that’s all,” acknowledging that this elderly relative “is absolutely impossible, it seems, to deal with — more so than ever.” It had been “eight months” since Bishop had last heard directly from Florence and she figured that was “for good.”

The next subject, news from Grace, was more sensitive and worrying for Bishop, and concerned “little Miriam,” something that sounded “so awful it is hard to believe.” Bishop does not spell it out, but it would have been the diagnosis of Down syndrome. Grace perhaps had encountered such children during her long obstetrics practice and assured Bishop that the doctor indicated “it is extremely mild,” prompting Bishop to declare, “oh I do hope so.”

The understanding of this condition was certainly not as advanced and comprehensive as it is today, when many people with this condition live long, busy and productive lives.* At that time, fear of the unknown and of those who were different, generated all manner of labels. Even for someone as intelligent as Bishop, the language she used (of the time) makes us cringe today.

After acknowledging this news and her worry/hope, Bishop observed that “if the baby’s head is well-shaped that sounds as if it must be very slight — the real cases have pointy heads, I think.” Oh dear. Even if this case was “slight,” Bishop still saw this condition as “rotten luck,” and extrapolated to “what a rotten place the world is anyway — sometimes!” She was reassured by the doctor, who sounded “as if he knows what he’s talking about … And who knows? — they do such wonderful things now,” and speculated that perhaps “in a year or two they might make some new medical discoveries about that — and cancer, too, we trust.” (Grace’s operation to remove a growth had the spectre of cancer around it.)

These ponderings prompted Bishop to add a parenthetical aside about a task she was commissioned to do while in N.Y.: “get a supply of a drug that one can only get in the U.S. for the epileptic sister of my dressmaker … a wonderful woman who keeps the whole family going).”

These complex, difficult issues (both the particular and the general) triggered by the news about Miriam turned Bishop’s thoughts to the equally complex and difficult issues around child-rearing and parenting, about which Bishop had many thoughts and ideas — a subject actually quite important to Bishop. The next long paragraph in this letter is a treatise on the subject and will comprise the next post.

*Note: Like Bishop, who met her for the first time in the early 1970s, Miriam was the first person I ever met with Down syndrome, though I had heard about this condition. Miriam was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known and we had a special bond, having been born almost at the same time. Miriam’s condition brought her many limitations, but she was as active a family member as any of the other Sutherlands (after all, we all have limitations of one kind or another, some more visible than others), and she was, arguably, the most loved and loving member of her family. She remembered everyone’s name and their birthdays. She loved going to camp and any kind of celebration, especially her own birthday and Christmas. Her favourite singer was Rita MacNeil. She was known and loved by all in Tatamagouche where she lived for the nearly four decades of her life.
(Miriam Sutherland in her den at her home in Balfron,
near Tatamagouche, 1990s. A photo of Rita MacNeil is
on the wall behind her, along with a photo of her cat.)

A recent example shows how people with the challenge of Down syndrome can live perfectly normal lives: this year, Will Brewer became Halifax’s Town Crier, the first Town Crier in Canada with Down syndrome. Wouldn’t Miriam be thrilled.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 90: Reiteration and Clarification

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 26 August 1961, just two weeks after the last one. It was prompted by the receipt of a letter from her aunt dated 13 August, written just a day after Bishop’s last, so they crossed en route. She was at Samabaia where they had gone “for the week-end last night.” She had found Grace’s letter “at the P.O.” It took less than two weeks to make the journey, surely not that long considering the distance. The content of Grace’s letter and the fact that she was up in the mountains away from Rio, a place where she could relax more easily, meant Bishop had the time and inclination to respond at length and this letter was the longest she wrote since January.

Because of the cross purposes of the sending and receiving, news often required reiteration and clarification. Bishop realized that she hadn’t been “clear enough in my letter,” that she was “going to come to see you no matter where you are — either Montreal or N.S.” For Bishop, “one is just as easy as the other … in fact Montreal is easier, I suppose.” It was only “1½ hours by plane from N.Y.” to Montreal. Mary Bulmer Ross lived there, so Grace would be visiting her younger sister. The timing for this possible visit would have to work around Mary’s own visit to Brazil, which was taking place towards the end of September or early October. Bishop’s trip to New York City was tentatively scheduled for sometime in October. Bishop urged Grace to “by all means go” to Montreal, if you feel like going.” She clearly was factoring in a visit, a prospect that made the New York sojourn more palatable.

Bishop had also heard from Aunt Mary, who said “you have lots of friends near her there.” Prompting Bishop to think that going to Montreal “might be more of a rest than staying at home,” where she was involved with Phyllis’s busy family, and a host of relatives.

Bishop reiterated that she would “have to work hard with that damned LIFE magazine for about three weeks, probably,” but assured Grace that she would “fly up to spend a few days with you wherever you may be,” once the work was done, “as soon as I can.”

The other plans for the New York trip were also rather up in the air, Bishop noting that “Lota said she wouldn’t come to the US with me,” because “the exchange is dreadful.” Bishop was hoping, however, that Lota would “change her mind” because she would “need her moral support while ‘revising’ my little book.” The fact that “an old friend of mine” had offered “her and her husband’s studio apartment in Greenwich Village” (this was LorenMacIvor and Lloyd Frankenberg*), as “they are in Europe,” made Bishop hope even more that Lota would reconsider because it meant “a big saving.” Bishop’s own travel was covered as well, so all these inducements made Bishop “hope Lota will come.” Lota herself had friends “near N.Y.,” who she could visit while Bishop went to Canada.
(Loren MacIvor)

Even if Bishop and Grace could have talked directly, there were so many factors to consider in these plans that it took several more months for them to set up, and in the end, things did not turn out as expected or desired. One of the factors was Grace’s health herself. Bishop confirmed that she had got her aunt’s “first letter about the operation,” and was “relieved to hear at least it wasn’t any worse,” even as it was “bad enough, all right.” She wondered if Grace had “to keep going back for tests, etc? — I imagine so.” She again urged her beloved aunt to “take care of yourself,” and concluded this part of the letter with “Thank God it wasn’t any worse.”

With all of this travel reiterating and clarifying done, Bishop shifted to that other aunt of infamous distinction: Florence. The next post will update that situation and upsetting news about little Miriam.

(*Note: Bishop had known Loren MacIvor, a painter, and Lloyd Frankenberg, a poet, for many years. They lived on Perry St. in Greenwich Village in a storied home. Click here to read more — keep reading this interesting article and Bishop will appear.)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 89: Jet-pilots and Superman

The final paragraph of Bishop’s letter of 12 August 1961 began with one more complaint about the postal service (something that resonates quite strongly here right now with the dispute between Canada Post and CUPW, its union). She noted to her aunt that “the mails are AWFUL — getting worse all the time.” She reported that “50,000 letter[s] were found hidden in an abandoned house in Rio —  & more on a garbage dump.” Well, things aren’t that bad in Canada!! But the backlog of packages from the surge of online shopping ahead of Christmas is causing great headaches and frustrations on all sides.

Remember that Bishop had made a carbon copy of the letter she was writing, and was intending to send them both. She wrote: “I’ll put the check in this one,” and if Grace got “the copy only, I’ll send another check.” Even the insurance was not much of a guarantee.

Bishop then passed on Lota’s “love and sympathy” and reported that “she is off to Petrópolis … to pay the bills.” Then another update on Elizabeth Naudin, whom Bishop had not seen “for ten days or so,” but she would see her “next week.” Bishop then asked: “Do you know when Mary is coming?” and urged Grace not to “go to Montreal [where Mary lived] unless you really feel up to it.” Grace had mentioned something about Miriam, prompting Bishop to ask for clarification (“What’s the matter…?”). And then she quickly concluded with, “I must get back to the grind” of the Brazil book, sending “lots of love” and noting “I think of you all the time — dreamed about you last night.”

The next day, Sunday, 13 August, Bishop added a postscript. She reported that “a jet-pilot” she had recently met and who was going to New York, had offered to take her letter and mail it in the US “on Monday or Tuesday” — a kind and fast courier (early Fedex!). It was “much safer” stateside, so she had decided not “to send the carbon.” This saviour came in for a nice description: “The pilot is amazing — looks just like Superman!” (By the way, Superman was the co-creation of an American andCanadian.)

After this clarification, Bishop turned to the idea of seeing Grace when she went to the US later in the year to work on the Brazil book. She wondered: “Maybe you’d rather meet me for a day or two in Boston.” But then she wondered if that might be “too far.” If Grace was going to Montreal, that was a possibility. All of this was wishful thinking and speculation, so Bishop returned to “well, let’s wait and see.” It would depend on many things, not the least of which were “how you feel, where you are, and when I get there,” that timing was not yet set.

Bishop reiterated, “I do want to see you this trip.” Elizabeth Naudin had mentioned the possibility of Grace “coming here,” which worried Bishop: “Much as I’d love to show you around, etc — I can’t honestly recommend it unless you are feeling absolutely well and tough — and unless I’m here, too!” She cautioned that “the city will be very hot by then.” As it was, she was concerned that “Mary & family” might catch “something — or other, as it is.” She reiterated that “unless one feels up to travelling around I don’t think it is worth the trip.” And noted that “travelling around is so complicated here.” She told her aunt that she was “supposed to go to some places for this book.” Her plane fare would be paid for such research trips, but as much as Bishop wanted to go to these places, she confessed: “I am scared of planes, particularly Brazilian planes.” Besides, she didn’t “see how I’m going to have time,” because “I write so slowly.”

Nothing about these plans were firm on either end, so Bishop concluded this postscript by urging Grace to “please let me know how you’re feeling.” She wondered if her aunt would be “staying with Phyllis for a while?” Something I’m sure she thought would be a good thing. She also had somehow learned that Aunt Mabel had “apparently … never got that letter I wrote her so long ago now.” She told her aunt that “sometime I’ll write another” and asked: “has she cheered up?”

The next letter was just two weeks later, 26 August 1961. The next post will begin to tackle this quite long epistle.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Poetry workshop at the Elizabeth Bishop House

On Saturday 17 November, Nova Scotia poet and teacher Deborah Banks offered a poetry workshop at the Elizabeth Bishop House. Here is a photo of the participants in the dining room. I am not sure who everyone is, but Deborah is third from the right.
(Photo by Laurie Gunn.)
As a former owner of the EB House, I am deeply grateful to all those who have taken care of it since we had to sell almost three years ago. I especially want to thank Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for its stewardship. It is fantastic to know so many artists are staying there again and readings/workshops and other gatherings are happening there. Laurie reports that there are still a few slots left for residencies in January 2019. The EB House has a Facebook page, so you can make contact with Laurie through it. Thanks Laurie for all you do.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 88: Getting to Nova Scotia

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was a two-parter dated 12-13 August. “because of Lota’s job — and mine (more later),” Bishop told her aunt that they had been “in Rio most of the time now.” As a result, they got mail only when they went to the mountains on the weekends, “or when someone brings it to us.” That was the case in this instance, when “a friend brought a big batch,” in which was Grace’s letter dated 26 July, written on the same day of Bishop’s last to her aunt. Grace had written this most recent letter “from the Hospital,” which meant she was still dealing with the aftermath of the operation. This news upset Bishop: “I am so damned sorry to hear you have had such a bad time.” She realized all the more how “brave” her aunt was. Bishop wondered if Grace had received her own 26 July letter, which responded to the news that Grace needed to have surgery: “I bet you didn’t.” Her solution to the unreliability of the mails was to make “a carbon of this and will mail two of them…,” separately.

It is nigh impossible for us in this day of instant, electronic communication to grasp the space-time involved in this correspondence. Keeping track of the back and forth, with the press of daily life intervening, was a challenge at best. But Bishop’s deep connection with Grace made her keen to stay in touch regardless of the frustrations. All this space-time also meant repetition, to ensure news got conveyed and also because Bishop would forget what she had written, as we all would — she didn’t keep copies of her personal correspondence, and even when she did, it was to doubly ensure receipt at the other end. Letter writing was not a simple act on any level. Grace did indeed get Bishop’s letter of 26 July, though just when is impossible to know, since her side of things is lost; but there it is in Bishop’s papers at Vassar. All this said, about delays and lost mail, instant communication also has its own issues. One of the most significant is no sober second thought, we write quickly and send quickly and respond quickly, which can sometimes lead to all manner of misunderstandings. And woe to anyone who doesn’t respond instantly, which can be regarded as a serious slight. Ah, the vagaries of human communication, no matter what the era.

With her carbon copy, twice-sent insurance, Bishop continued: “I do hope everything is going well and that you are feeling better.” For Bishop, this outcome mattered more than her aunt reading any letter she wrote. Based on what Grace had written, Bishop sensed that things were okay: “It does sound as though you had got it good and early, thank God.” Even so, she also sensed that things had been “tough” and declared that she could “sympathize and hope and pray you feel better soon.” Finally, that outcome was all that mattered for this far away niece thinking of her favourite aunt.
(Grace was known to dabble in poetry, mostly humorous verse.
This example, in her own hand, is on a topic that she
knew mostly from the nursing side, but in 1961, 
from the patient side, too. AUA)
Ever the practical person, Bishop included “a small present for you,” which she knew was “a drop in the bucket.” A jot so her aunt could “buy yourself some delicacies … or a new hat….”

Since Bishop was not sure Grace had received the previous letter, which had gone into detail about her fellowship and new job, she next reiterated the situation in a lengthy paragraph. She repeated her intention of “postpon[ing] using” the travel grant “until next year” because Lota was so busy and she “didn’t want to go alone.” She reminded Grace that Lota “is working awfully hard and it is pretty boring for me here in Rio.” Then the “surprise” of the offer of the writing job: “LIFE magazine gets out a series of picture-books, sort of — each about a different country.” She down-played the text she would write as “about 100 pages or a bit more,” and expressed even more strongly her view of “Time and Life,” declaring that she “loathe[d] … everything they stand for — but they pay well.” One has to pause here, again, and wonder why Bishop chose to accept this offer, even if she was bored in Rio. Was it only the money? A reason that did not fully mesh with Bishop’s general views about “commerce and contemplation.” Our declared reasons for doing anything are often underpinned by a raft of subconscious reasons that might actually surprise us. Bishop was as human as the rest of us, and could choose things that were not necessarily in her best interests.

She repeated once again that another big inducement to accepting was the air fare to “N.Y., 1st class, and expenses there for three weeks, in October, while we ‘revise’.” As much as anything, as future letters to Grace attest, this prospect became quite an ideé fixe for her, because she began to factor in a serious intention to get to Nova Scotia. As if psyching herself up, she explained to her aunt that “revise” meant that “they take what I write and put it through their own special meat-grinder so it sounds just like them and not like me.” Even as the self-declared reasons for not putting herself through this process mounted, she kept returning to “but they pay well enough to make it a fairly good bargain, I think.” Did she really think so? Our species’ capacity for rationalization is significant.

She still had an out because she had “not signed the contract yet,” even though she had it in hand. However, she had “already done three chapters,” so she thought she would “go on with it,” even as “it is hell — I hate this kind of writing — ALL of Brazilian history, geography, and politics reduced to a pill form.” And the turn around time for this work was “two or three months.” For someone who wrote painfully slowly, this demand was perhaps the hardest to achieve. The immediate upside to the work was that “it keeps me awfully busy!” Matching Lota, one thinks.

Then the inducement of “if I get to N Y in October I am going to stay on an extra week or ten days and somehow or to her  get down to see you.” Bishop realized that she had already explained some of this to Grace in the last letter: “oh dear — my brain’s not functioning very well these days.” She was already planning her itinerary: “I could fly to Boston — stop over one or two nights in Worcester,” to investigate first hand “poor old Aunt F[’s]” situation, “and then fly down to Halifax for a couple of days.” She realized it meant “awfully little time — but I am determined to get to see you if I get that far.” Her words do seem to hold some sense of urgency, a real need to see Grace, which perhaps was a strong reason to go against her better judgement.

The main part of this letter soon wound down, but before Bishop mailed it, she added a lengthy postscript the next day, which will comprise the next post.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 87: Aunts and Cousins

The next subject of Bishop’s 26 July 1961 letter was a series of ponderings about family. The pending trip to NYC to work on the book about Brazil had brought up the hoped for possibility of getting to Nova Scotia to see Grace. The other aunt that came in for consideration was cranky Aunt Florence, about whom Bishop had been hearing from her paternal cousins: “Nancy wrote of moving her [Florence],” because “the place she was at changed hands and got worse, it seems.” Or so her cousin reported. Bishop dryly observed that her cousins “seem to love to write me all the morbid details.”  Bishop confessed to Grace, “I don’t trust any of my [paternal] cousins very far, I’m afraid,” a situation which she observed was “awful.” She was puzzled and frustrated about their persistent reporting, telling Grace what her aunt undoubtedly already knew: “She’s much more their aunt than she’s ever been mine, God knows.” And being so far away, “what on earth can I do about it, here?” But Bishop was a curious person and she still had ties to this difficult old lady, so after the question (you can feel the exasperation in it), the next sentence began: “However.” Bishop couldn’t really help herself, perhaps: “if I get to N Y I am going to go and investigate at least.” (Maybe like a traffic accident when one can’t look away, even though one wants to.) Bishop continued, “She sounds in very bad shape and I do wish she would just die peacefully in her sleep now.” Florence didn’t fulfill this wish until 1963.

After dispatching Aunt Florence, Bishop turned to her maternal cousin Elizabeth Naudin, who was much closer in space-time, though perhaps not much closer in affection, even as Bishop kept trying. Bishop told Grace that she had recently “seen Elizabeth once or twice,” even declaring that “she was here last week one hectic day,” that is, at Lota’s apartment in Rio, clearly not a convenient day because “we had two carpenters here (just like Laurel & Hardy)” — one can imagine that set up!. In addition, there were “people coming and going and the phone never stop[ped] ringing for Lota all day long.”

Elizabeth Naudin must have brought her children because Bishop observed, “E’s little girls are really very cunning.” Quite a strong and strange word to describe young ones. She reported that “they were going to dinner with the in-laws that day and were all dressed up,” though it is unclear why that would be “cunning.” The oldest, Suzanne, came in for another word from Bishop, “clever, all right.” On the day of the visit to the apartment that was “a mess — no doubt about it,” as Elizabeth and her girls were leaving, Suzanne “thanked me politely for a book I’d given her and then said ‘Good-bye — good-bye to you and your funny apartment…’ — looking very malicious.” Perhaps Bishop was too disposed to seeing something negative in the context of her continuing frustrations in her relations with her cousin. In any case, Bishop told her aunt that because it was “a month’s school vacation,” Elizabeth had “gone to spend ten days up in Teresopolis with the children — they have the in-laws’ house up there.” She also reported that the Naudins “have a car — a Brazilian-made one, but the biggest … and she drives — I do admire her courage!” (Having myself witnessed driving in Brazil in 1999, both in the country and the city, I too admire Elizabeth Naudin’s courage!).
 (Elizabeth Naudin at the in-laws in Teresopolis, 1962, AUA.)
After this update, Bishop reported on something Grace would have known about: “I think Mary [Bulmer Ross, Elizabeth Naudin’s mother, Grace’s sister] is now coming in October.” This mention of a visit is the first in the extant letters, but clearly it was a plan Bishop had heard about already from her cousin. The timing of her aunt’s visit meant, “I’m afraid I may miss her completely,” because of the planned trip to NYC for the Brazil book. “Maybe,” Bishop hoped, “we’ll overlap for a few days.” In the end, she did see her aunt, an encounter Bishop reported to Grace later in the year.

Without even a breath, the next paragraph began: “I envy you going fishing.” Clearly, the operation had not slowed Grace down for too long. Bishop then asked about one of Grace’s step-grandchildren: “is Freddie still involved with the same man?” I met Freddie Bowers through Phyllis Sutherland — Phyllis’s step-niece. They were very close. Freddie was a troubled person, however, and committed suicide in the late 1990s.

Bishop then averred, “I did write to Aunt Mabel a long time ago.” Perhaps she had been complaining to Grace that she hadn’t heard from Elizabeth. She had sent the letter to Florida. Perhaps it had got lost, so she said she would “try to get off a note this week to G.V.,” more problematic a task since “I can’t stop working at all now — I have to have 100 pages in in August — and for me that’s an awful lot.” The Brazil book involved not only the demand to write, but Bishop was also “run[ning] around to libraries, etc. looking things up.” Finally, this task meant she had to “type and type and type.”

Lota’s job was also keeping them in Rio for long stretches, and that meant “Our ‘couple’ are up there all alone with the cats,” meaning at the house in Samambaia, and Bishop reported that “they’re all getting lonely.” Elizabeth and Lota were able to return mostly only on the weekends, and “the cats won’t leave us alone …. I slept with all three last time.”

Bishop’s letter was starting to wind down: “I guess that’s all my news.” She had to head off to do errands: “sell some $$$$ — buy a pair of shoes — and a lot more typing paper.” As her thoughts trailed off, she noted that “‘winter’ seems to be over — it’s hot again.” She wistfully noted that if she “didn’t have to work,” she’d “be out on the beach for a swim.”

Finally, she returned to Grace’s situation, hoping that her aunt was “all right and that the operation proved to be very minor.” She signed off “With lots of love and please write.” Bishop’s own next letter was written less than a month later, on 12 August 1961. The next post will turn to that epistle.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 86: The beginnings of the Brazil book

Just over a month had passed when Bishop wrote her next letter to Grace, dated 26 July 1961. Lota’s new job with the park had taken them to Rio shortly after Bishop had written her previous letter and she reported, “We are still in Rio — three weeks at this stretch.” This letter was triggered by one Bishop finally received from her aunt, dated 14 July, which had arrived in Petrópolis on the 22nd (not too bad considering the distance). “A friend brought down some accumulated mail,” and Bishop was alarmed enough by Grace’s news to respond as soon as it came to hand.

What concerned Bishop was a report that Grace had had an operation. Just what the reason was for such an intervention is not clear, but Bishop’s “These damned lumps and things,” hint of some sort of cyst or growth. Her concern came out further in a frustrated observation: “What a nuisance the female … body is …” Fortunately, it appears to have been benign: “From what you say, it doesn’t sound too bad, but I hope you aren’t being brave!” Bishop knew how stoic her aunt was. By this time, she “hope[d] to goodness it is all over and everything is all right.” She reported that they were “going home again at last on the 28th, day after tomorrow, and so maybe I’ll find a letter from you or Phyllis,” at the post office.

As serious as this report was, Grace had also offered the cheerier news that all was well with “the new baby,” meaning Phyllis’s third child, Miriam. Miriam had two older brothers, Wallace and David, who clearly doted on their sister, to which Bishop responded, “isn’t it nice when the older children are crazy about the baby like that.” She then gave an account about “our friend here who has twelve [children]”: “the two little ones are both mad about babies and one day I saw them almost tearing the cook’s … baby apart — they both wanted to hold it at the same time.” This tugging, Bishop reported, did not bother the infant in question in the least: “the baby was lying placidly on the sofa, sucking a pacifier, not minding at all.”

This talk of babies reminded Bishop, of course, of “Monica,” and she told Grace that while it was “not very original of me to say so … we do miss [her] … dreadfully, after seeing her every day.” Bishop especially missed her “always grinning” good nature. When Mary Morse left for New York, Bishop noted, Monica “had two teeth and was sitting up.” Bishop hoped that they would be “back in September.”

The next paragraph of this fulsome letter turned to a subject that was clearly beginning to preoccupy Bishop in a serious way — the book about Brazil that she had mentioned in the previous letter. Even as Bishop remained ambivalent and conflicted about this project, she took it on, perhaps partly because Lota had become so busy and preoccupied with the big park project. Bishop was starting to feel some grief over losing the quiet time at the house in Samambaia, so perhaps she decided that it might help her to be occupied during the long weeks in Rio.

Bishop reminded her aunt that she “got a grant for ‘foreign travel’ — to be used this year and/or next — but because of Lota’s job we decided to stay put this year, and I’m just hoarding it for the time being.” This segued into confirming to her aunt that “now I’ve taken on a job, too.” Sometime in the intervening month, Bishop had agreed to the Brazil book, but, as she confessed to Grace, “[I] almost wish I hadn’t, it’s such a headache.”

She described its parameters: “LIFE magazine asked me to write the text of a small book on Brazil.” She noted it was part of “a series … each a different country.” Right from the start she was under no illusion about its value: “Probably no one reads the text, anyway, just looks at the photographs.” She observed that the visual component of these books “are wonderful, usually.” But declared outright: “that kind of writing is hard for me to do.” She was expected “to cover the whole country — history, economics, geography, arts, sports — everything, even if superficially.” A daunting task even for a seasoned scholar, which Bishop was surely not.
(The Author's bio inside the Life World Library's Brazil.)
Bishop was not behind the bush about why she choose to take on this task: “they will pay well, and also pay for three weeks in NY to work on it with them [the editors] — and the plane fare.” It was serious money, so she decided, perhaps against her better judgement, that she “might as well tackle it.”

Not only did she have doubts about her ability to pull it off, and of the value of this kind of writing, she also observed that she didn’t “like the magazine and don’t like them much,” regarding “them” as “high-pressure salesmen types.” In the end, “I am doing it for the money.” Period. She did weakly aver that she knew “a lot about Brazil by now, of course, willy nilly.” Not the most confident of assertions.

The other big incentive was that trip to New York, which she hoped might happen “in October,” with the possibility that she “MIGHT get to N.S. too.” At this point, she paused to wonder if she hadn’t “already told you all of this … forgive me if I have.”

Getting to the US also meant that she might also be able to go “see Aunt Florence, without warning, to try to find out what’s going on.” This next subject and other family matters interjected themselves and the Brazil book receded for a couple of paragraphs. The next post will take up these family issues.

The writing of the “Life World Library” book about Brazil and the upsetting editing process that ensued has become (in)famous in Bishop lore. The reasons we do anything are often complex, and especially so for something as significant as writing a book. All the reasons Bishop stated to her aunt must be taken at face value and she was certainly not apologetic for the primary one: money; but her ambivalence and conflict, present from the beginning, laid a foundation for an unsettling and, in the end, unsatisfying effort.

Bishop did not seek out the work, but the timing of this unbidden offer was important. It presented itself just as Lota was becoming immersed in the park job, purposeful work on a major development that had not only implications for Rio but also for the whole nation. In that moment, Elizabeth and Lota did not know how consuming the park would become, but Bishop somehow sensed that a shift was happening and the sudden appearance of such an offer perhaps seemed like a sign. Because her serious writing (especially poems) took so long to manifest, this “busy work” would be a way of demonstrating her interest in her adopted country and a way to occupy herself in the midst of the work swiftly consuming Lota. The psychology behind her decision was not as simple as “I’m doing it for the money,” but whatever the deeper reasons, accepting the offer was not an especially good decision.

Benjamin Moser writes insightfully about the results of an effort that, it could be argued, was a mistake on Bishop’s part; but at the time (even with her reservations), Bishop took it on and did the best she could. What happened to this strange anomaly in Bishop’s oeuvre after her death is not on her. Scholars have their own agendas. We all do things in the moment that we later regret and would rather forget, all part of being human. Bishop lived in Brazil for over five years after Brazil was published in 1962. One wonders how many people she told about it, except to complain. She sent copies to a few friends with some corrections made in the margins; but once the deed was done, Bishop turned quickly to other things, putting the unpleasant experience behind her.

Bishop instructed the Time-Life editors to send a copy to Grace (perhaps she thought the grandchildren would enjoy looking at the pictures). Unlike all the other books she sent to her aunt and cousin, which were lovingly inscribed, Bishop did not sign this copy; rather it arrived with an impersonal card with a printed inscription: “With compliments Elizabeth Bishop Time Inc. Book Division.” Decades ago, I found a copy of this ubiquitous book in a used bookstore in Halifax. I confess that I have only looked at the pictures! Her frustration with the whole experience is well-known among Bishop scholars. I just never took the time to read it. I know so little about Brazil, that I would not be able to identify the issues. Even so, I should read it one of these days.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 85: More updates

The final paragraph of Bishop’s 30 June 1961 letter is a mixed list of updates. She reported first that “Lota is working hard,” assuming that Grace would understand it was because of the new job Bishop had mentioned in her January letter. She observed that “life is very strenuous these days and thank heavens it is cool now.”

Next she noted that she had not seen Elizabeth Naudin “for about 3 weeks.” She reported that the Naudins “have a car now so can come to see me, I think.” But that clearly had not yet happened, so Bishop was going to “call Ray today.”

An interesting but still tentative development was a wire from her “N Y agent … about a job they want me to take on.” This refers to the Time-Life book about Brazil that Bishop worked on in the early 1960s. The letter that had been sent to her about this project “of course, got lost,” and she wasn’t sure she would “feel I can accept … but if I can it will pay pretty well, at least.”*
(The cover of the Time-Life book Bishop did.)
The next item on the list was Grace’s report that she had “layringitis [sic].” Even though Grace was “a long way off, maybe” this problem was “the same kind of flu that’s been going around here.” Lota has succumbed and “lost her voice completely for three days (a terrible problem for a Brazilian!)” and especially so with her new job gearing up.

A “//” signaled a shift in tone to “Our three orange trees are all bearing,” which meant that Bishop was making marmalade, “2 dozen jars.” Both the oranges and the preserve were “delicious.”

She then reported that “Sunday night we had six guests for supper,” and asked her aunt: “guess what” they had: “pancakes and maple syrup.” Bishop was stretching out that 1960 gift as long as she could, writing that she still had “a quart or more left.” This number of people were kept supplied with pancakes because “the cook had taught her husband how to fry them, too,” and “they had two frying pans going.”

A dash signaled the next shift, back to family. Bishop had recently heard from her paternal cousins “Kay & Nancy” with “grim and horrible news about Aunt F.” She avoided particulars. Bishop confessed to feeling “awful about her,” but she didn’t “know what to do.” Just what “awful” means is somewhat ambiguous, but still she felt she was somehow not doing all she could to support these relatives. Bishop confided that she trusted Nancy, “but no one else in that family.”  Bishop wondered if Florence “should be moved to another nursing home …. I just don’t know.” The problem, according to Bishop, was that Florence “behaves so badly that no place wants her.” She concluded that the whole situation was “tragic.” There was no love lost between Bishop and her difficult aunt, but still she kept tethered to that Bishop side, staying in touch. She noted that if she did “make any money” that she would “make a quick trip to NY, and then go to see for myself.”

Another “//” signaled the end of this short but packed letter, urging Grace to “take care of yourself” and “write me again soon.” She asked specifically for her aunt to tell her about her health and to “send a snapshot of the baby [Miriam Sutherland].”

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt was written just over a month later, a longer one with more detailed updates of nearly every topic mentioned in this June missive. The next post will introduce 26 July 1961.

*Note: Bishop did accept this commission with Time-Life. The fraught process of editing the book, which has become legendary, took her to New York City. In the end, Bishop was not happy with the result. Some subsequent scholars and commentators also take exception to it, such as Clarice Lispector scholar Benjamin Moser in a 2012 New Yorker essay.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 84: Babies

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is dated 20 June 1961. It was in response to one from Grace dated 5 June. When I first read this letter (many years ago now), I perked up: Grace penned her letter on the day I was born. She wrote it because her first granddaughter, Miriam Sutherland, was born just three days before, on the 2nd. Grace knew Bishop was keen to hear about this advent, so didn’t waste any time sharing the news — even if the postal service was slow to transport it.

Bishop retrieved her aunt’s letter on 19 June, “on our way to Rio.” There had been another big gap since Grace’s last, at least of those that Bishop had received: “it seems to me that about one out of three letters gets lost.” But in all likelihood, Grace’s 5 June letter was the most recent to reach her niece.

Bishop turned immediately to the big news, remembering that “it was about time for Phyllis to have that baby.” She confessed that she “was beginning to worry” not hearing anything, so was relieved to learn “it is safely over and how nice to have a little girl” (Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland already had two boys). Bishop enclosed “a small present” for Phyllis “to get something for Miriam’s trousseau … or will they call her Christine?” She was, in then end, called Miriam. Bishop finally met Phyllis’s children in the early 1970s, but in the interim, she was eager to hear about them from both her aunt and her cousin. I met Phyllis and Miriam in 1991, long after Bishop had died, but “cousin Elizabeth” was still a vivid memory for both women.
In the midst of this busy time, Grace herself continued to have health issues, though just what is not clear from Bishop’s letter. All she wrote was how “glad” she was to hear that “you have had someone to help you wash and clean.”

So, 1961 was the year of new babies in Bishop’s life, far and near. Bishop next turned to the other baby, the one most immediately in their lives, the adopted daughter of their friend Mary Morse. Just before that update, Bishop reiterated that they had “to go to town before the bank closes to sell some dollars, etc.” As a result, the letter would be “hurried.” She thought she’d wait to mail this response “in Petrópolis … [where] the mails are quicker and safer.” Then she reported that “Mary Morse is going off to N.Y. by jet with her adopted baby this Sunday.” The trip to Rio would be equally hurried because they wanted “to get home early this week-end to see as much of her as possible before she goes.” This mother and baby planned to “be gone two to four months” and Bishop confessed that they would “miss ‘Monica’ dreadfully. I’ve never seen such a good healthy happy baby.”

This remarkable little person “really never cries and laughs at everything — even falling out of bed!” She had already begun to cut “two teeth — and can almost sit up but not quite.” Not only was her nature unfolding, but also her stature: they sensed she would “be very tiny …dark-eyed and Brazilian,” this appearance in marked contrast to “her adopted mother who is a very tall, bony, blonde Bostonian type!”

Bishop promised Grace “a couple of pictures … but I left them in the country — next time.” Bishop acknowledged that generally speaking “I like babies but I don’t think I ever liked one quite so much — she loves everyone.” She knew Grace would “love her” too, and noted that with Monica’s “dark eyes, she probably looks a little the way you looked as a baby — and is going to be very mischievous” (also rather like Grace, if the stories Bishop knew and wrote about her are to be believed). Monica was already pulling “the cats’ tails.”

As much as Elizabeth and Lota accepted the circumstances of this single mother, Bishop knew that “Mary’s family is going to be rather surprised at her daughter” with its “(father unknown).” Bishop always said that Brazilians were more open-minded than Americans, especially the uptight New Englanders of her own childhood and adolescence.

Bishop’s homage to Monica was by way of demonstrating to her aunt how interested she was in Phyllis’s new daughter, whom she hoped was “as good” as their new baby.

The final paragraph of this “hurried” missive provided a list of further updates and will comprise the next post.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 83 — Postcards

Over a month passed before the next communication from Bishop to Grace — at least the postcard that was sent on 6 March 1916 is the one that survives. It is not possible to know if Bishop had written in the interim (since the 30 January letter), but perhaps not because as the following postcard, dated 27 April (again, a significant gap), shows, the quiet life at Samambaia had given way to long stretches in busy Rio.

The March postcard was typed and was by way of acknowledging a “nice letter” from Grace. With very little room, Bishop offered a quick update, reporting that “Monica is a darling baby … so good and laughs all the time.” She declared that Mary was lucky to have such a child. Then she described the verso of the postcard: “the house where we stay in Ouro Preto.” This house belonged to their friend Lilli Correia de Araújo and was called Pouso Chico Rei. She noted that it “is run as a small hotel … room for 8 people.” Bishop wrote that she wanted the Naudins to “go there — in fact they must!” But even more than that, Bishop wanted Grace to visit her and see this historic city: “Oh dear — I wish you were coming here instead — or too, I shd. say!” hinting that the dynamics with her cousin remained fraught.
(The image on EB's postcard of Lilli's hotel)
Bishop urged her aunt “to find out about the boat fares and let’s see.” Bishop promised that she would look into “freighter fares” (a preferred way for Bishop to travel), but she recognized that such a mode of transportation might be an issue for her elderly aunt because “they are apt to take forever.” But, then, perhaps Grace wouldn’t mind “18-25 days at sea.” Bishop commiserated over airplanes “(I loathe flying, too, even if I do it once in a while.)” And acknowledged that ship travel was “more expensive than tourist-planes now.”
(Pouso Chico Rei still operates. I know a couple of people who have stayed there in recent years, and am told there is an EB room!)
The card was nearly full so Bishop quickly added the old news: “I got a grant a while ago” (the Chapelbrook Foundation Fellowship), which required her “to go travelling on it this year.” A little scribble on the front of the postcard was it for this brief missive.

If Bishop responded to Grace’s March letter, it does not survive. Her next note to Grace is another postcard, this one hand-written, dated 27 April. It was written in Rio, where Bishop said they now spent “3 or 4 days every week … because of Lota’s job.” Being more in Rio meant that she was able to see her cousin more: “I saw E and Suzanne yesterday,” perhaps to give a birthday present to the child who had turned five on 12 April. It appears Bishop had not heard recently from her aunt, but said that her cousin “said she’d heard from you — I hope that means you are lots better & up & about.” Bishop had clearly heard something of this most recent trouble, though just what was wrong with Grace is not stated.

The verso of this postcard showed a bird’s eye view of the Rio waterfront, expansive enough for Bishop to be able to show where she and Lota were in relation to the Naudins. Bishop marked north-south-east-west on the image and put an X where she lived and where the Naudins lived. Bishop was ever making maps!

Bishop still had not given up hope that Grace would visit, as she concluded this scribble message by saying, “If you came you could stay here if you wanted.” She signed off by saying that she hoped to “hear from you soon — Love, Elizabeth.”

The next communication from Bishop, dated 20 June 1961, is a full-blow letter, which will be the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Moya Pacey reads at Elizabeth Bishop House

Australian writer Moya Pacey gave a reading at the Elizabeth  Bishop House on Thursday evening 11 October.
(Moya at the dining room table in the EB House.
Photo by Maxine Ryan.)
In spite of cold, rainy weather, there was a good turnout for this intimate sharing from her two collections The Wardrobe and Black Tulips.
(Listening to the poet read. Photo by Maxine Ryan.)
It is such a wonderful thing to know that such events are once again happening in this dear old place. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for taking such good care of this important heritage site and making it available to artists and readers from across the globe.

I understand that there are only about eight spots available for the fall-winter booking season at the house. Check out the EB House facebook page to find out more.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 82: Diversions

The final paragraph of Bishop’s 30 January 1961 letter is not nearly as long and detailed as the previous one, but it contains a hint of a change in their lives that had far greater impact than the arrival of a baby. Before this reveal, Bishop returned to Grace’s letter and responded to a plan her aunt had mentioned: “I think you are wise not to go to Florida, under the circumstances” (none of which we know in detail, but all related to the stress and strain among Grace, Mabel and Hazel as they cared for and dealt with the illness and death of Eleanor Boomer Shore).

Bishop paused with a dash and then typed, “Don’t please think of my birthday!*” Bishop would turn 50 on 8 February and Grace had already thought about it. The asterisk pointed to a scribble at the bottom of the page where Bishop thanked her aunt “for the nice (& unusually sensible!) card —” As for Bishop, she asked Grace if she knew “how old I will be?” and declared, “I simply don’t believe it” and she had decided to “just ignore the whole thing. —//” That double back-slash seeming to end the matter for further discussion.

At this point, the other big change was introduced. Bishop reported that they were regularly “going to Rio because Lota has a wonderful new job — or is about to — very important, with the new government.” This job was to head up the development of a large section of waterfront in Rio: the construction of Parque do Flamengo. Carlos Lacerda, the new governor of the state of Guanabara and an old friend of Lota, recruited her for this major urban renewal project.
Bishop declared that she was “delighted” because it was “just the kind of thing she can do.” Nothing so ambitious is ever as simple, straight-forward or easy as it seems and Bishop noted that “being politics it’s all uncertain still.” The uncertainty soon resolved and before long Lota was totally immersed in the whirl and stress of this mega-project and they were spending much more time in Rio. In the end, this project took a huge toll on both women and on their relationship, but in these early days, the excitement and rightness of it dominated.
 (A view of the park completed.)
At that moment, Bishop told her aunt that she was “extra glad” for Lota “because it will take her mind off her troubles with the adopted son.” This family strife was, according to Bishop, caused by the son “who behaved rather like our relatives, only worse.” Bishop promised to “tell you the awful story” sometime. This trouble had “upset” Lota so much “because she was so devoted to those five ‘grandchildren’ — we both were, and are.” Strife in general and perhaps in this particular, Bishop suggested, came about because “most people cannot accept things, I guess — can’t bear to feel grateful,” but rather chose to be “spiteful.”

Shaking off this upsetting subject, Bishop assured her aunt that for them, these new diversions were balm: “there is ‘Monica,’ and this job,” and she herself was actually working, “trying to get two books done in 1961.”

Even with her own relatives’ bad behaviour, Bishop closed with “Give my love to everyone” (one puts up with a lot in family) and urged her beloved aunt to “keep well and write soon.”

The next correspondence from Bishop were in the form of two postcards, one in March and one in April. They will comprise the next post.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 81: A Sensitive Matter

The next subject Bishop broached in her 30 January 1961 letter is a sensitive matter, brought up to give Grace the context for why it would prove difficult to have the Naudins visit Samambaia in the near future (after all Bishop’s talk about wanting to host them there). Bishop could have explained the situation briefly and left it at that, but she decided to give her aunt the details, some of which I will not include in this post.

Before launching into the story, Bishop wrote, “we wish you were here visiting us now.” One of the main reasons for this wish was because “there is a baby in the house again.” Their “proper Bostonian friend, Mary Morse, went and adopted one [a baby, that is].” Mary was the person Bishop has supplanted in Lota’s heart, yet Morse lived nearby all along and had been building a house “down below us.” This house was just “being finished,” though it would not “be ready [yet] for another month, at least.” As a result, Mary and the new baby were “living with us.” Whatever the complex relationship was among these three women, proximity remained.

The long paragraph that followed this set up is a detailed account of how 47-year-old Morse, “after talking about it for years,” finally decided to adopt a child, something she had “been negotiating … for ages.” Bishop explained to Grace that “the laws are like those in the US — you can’t adopt legally until you’re over 50, unless you are married, and Mary is an old maid.”

The Brazilian feature film about Lota, Elizabeth and Mary (“Flores Rares/Reaching for the Moon”) offers an interpretation of the process of this adoption. Some of it fits with Bishop’s account in this letter, some of it does not. Since this child, who was named “Mary Stearns Morse,” is still living (indeed, my age), I am uncomfortable about including Bishop’s account of her origins. Bishop told Grace that because of Mary’s age (under the legal limit), “this baby was located through various intermediaries and no one knew any one else’s name, etc.”

This film shows Lota (and Elizabeth, if I remember correctly — it is some years since I saw the film) making the trip to pick up the baby directly from the mother (who is portrayed quite  differently from the person Bishop describes). Bishop wrote that they did go “down to Rio to see her for Mary, because we knew that even if the baby had four eyes Mary wouldn’t be able to resist her.” But she noted that “a friend of ours” had already picked up the baby and had her “checked out by one doctor.” When Lota and Elizabeth took possession of her, they “took her to our doctor, for a final check up.” All was well. Bishop declared her to be “a darling baby” between two and three months old. Her direct description of this infant is curiously expansive: “not pretty, but cunning; very bright, healthy, fat, and smiling, poor little thing.” Their doctor declared: “She has the best things of all — good temper,” because she hadn’t fussed when she was “prodded and poked” during the examination; rather: “she laughed.”

Lota and Elizabeth “drove her back to Mary, in the pouring rain, and announced ‘Here’s Monica’.”
(Mary Morse and Monica, 1961)
The next part gives an account of the baby’s mother and the unfortunate circumstances that required her to “give away” such a “darling.” Their Rio friend (the intermediary) “saw the mother (we didn’t want to) and said she was absolutely broken hearted about giving her up.” Bishop said it was obvious the infant “has been loved and well taken care of.” One can only feel sad for this mother.

Bishop knew Grace would understand the sad circumstances (akin to some of the situations she undoubtedly saw during her long nursing career delivering babies) and would be interested in the nature and well being of this little adoptee. Bishop reported that Monica “has been no trouble at all — sleeps like an angel, eats like a horse, wakes up laughing, and only cries when she’s wet or hungry.” She noted that this little person “act[ed] unhappy and frightened for about ten minutes every day at six — isn’t it strange?” Bishop had her own speculation as to why, based on the mother’s circumstances.

Finally, she declared Monica to be “a lucky child” because “Mary will adore her and she will be moderately rich, and get a good education, etc.”

I have omitted many of the more intimate details of this account, but clearly Bishop wanted Grace to know about this important development in their lives. She also told this story to her aunt because it explained why it would be hard to have all the Naudins visit: “Mary is in one of the two guest rooms and uses the extra bathroom for her and all the baby things.” Having more company right then would have been too much.

The next post will bring this heady letter to a close and hint at another, even bigger development unfolding in their lives in the first days of 1961.