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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 47: Dogs and Cats

After having addressed her concerns over Grace’s health in the first paragraph of her letter of 25 August 1959, Bishop turned to an account of a different sort, though one she clearly thought would interest Grace. Bishop informed her aunt that she and Lota “have had a very sad time of it lately — both our dogs died, within four days.”

If one had to label Bishop in terms of her animal preference, one would probably choose “cat person.” Yet she had many creatures as pets during her life (including a number of birds) and her closest childhood pet was Betsy, her Great Village dachshund. Dogs were also a significant part of her life.

She clarified the status of these canine companions telling Grace that one of them was Lota’s, while the other was “actually our friend Mary Morse’s.” Bishop described Lota’s dog as “a darling old mongrel probably about 14.” Lota, it seems, was more a dog person. Bishop observed that this female member of their family “had had a beautiful dog’s-life,” stating that she “probably had a hundred children”!! Even with such a productive life and so many progeny, Bishop noted that her death was hard and they “felt dreadful about it.” They blamed themselves for having been away so much in Rio, especially the most recent ten-day visit. This kind of guilt is common. They believed that if they had been home they “might have saved her.” Knowing Grace, the obstetrics nurse and former farm wife, would be interested in the details, Bishop gave them to her: “she was in heat and seemed rather old for such carryings-on and when we got back she just seemed rather tired, etc., and bleeding a bit — but we didn’t realize for a day or two it was anything worse, and then she just lay down and died.”

Mary Morse’s dog, “another female, about 9 or 10,” was clearly bonded with Lota’s matriarch, and Bishop recounts that she “was heart-broken and wouldn’t eat or drink water — cried and cried.” They did a consultation on this one, calling a vet in Rio, who told them to watch out for “pneumonia and infection and sure enough the next day she began to show the symptoms.” Bishop concluded that she had caught whatever she had from her elder. Lota and Bishop tried to save this one by administering “penicillin injections and medicines, etc.,” and they even gathered her up and headed back to Rio to see the vet. But all this effort was too late because it was “a violent infection of some sort, plus ‘melancholia’, plus her age, plus bad weather.” Sometimes the forces in the world are really stacked against us. Lota and Bishop held vigil for two nights, “and then she died, too.”

Not to be left out, Mary Morse’s cat, which Lota and Elizabeth were also tending, “(Mary is in the US for the summer)," was also having problems. As Bishop explained, “the cat isn’t supposed to have kittens because she is very tiny and had rickets, BUT — she is about to have them!” They had brought the cat to Rio, too, on their mission to save the dog and in some exasperation Bishop declared, “Now we are here in Rio again with the cat, again, waiting for the kittens…and scared to death for fear the little cat will die, too.”

Bishop reminded her aunt that she and Lota had spent May and June waiting for their maid to deliver her baby, Patricia (who had arrived by this letter and was “a lovely baby — very pretty, quite fair so far (both parents are dark) but with brown eyes, of course, and laughing already”), and now she was holding vigil again, “waiting for four kittens (the vet says there are four).” Again, Bishop reports a detail that Grace, who had helped deliver many babies, would find interesting: “He can’t do a Caesarian on the cat because you can’t keep them still enough afterwards.” With relief, Bishop said that the vet had agreed to come for the delivery, but Bishop was “afraid” that he would be removing “the kittens in little pieces or something,” a grim outcome indeed. All that mattered to Bishop was that they save the cat’s life. Still, Bishop reported that this tiny cat, which had “never been away from the country,” had immediately taken “to the apartment and used the pan of sand like a perfect lady.” Her preferred spot was “the terrace,” where she watched “the swallows and seagulls with big eyes.” Her letter does not reveal the outcome of this delicate situation.

Not all their animals were in such dire straits: “My own cat [Tobias] is blooming,” she wrote, “bigger and fatter and more spoiled than ever.”

When I read this letter many years ago, with her description of their troubles with the dogs, the first thing that leapt into my mind was her poem “Pink Dog.” Brett Millier says that Bishop began this poem during “the Carnival season of 1963” (343), though she did not finish it until 1979 (kind of like the temporal trajectory of “The Moose” — though not quite as long a creation period — these masterpiece creature poems clearly needed a great deal of contemplation, meaning many things, of course, not the least of which was she identified with these creatures in some way that took time to understand). In any case, one of the things this letter tells me is that when Bishop came to write “Pink Dog,” undoubtedly triggered by seeing such an actual dog, it was not just some distant spectacle that caught her attention. She had her own quite intimate relationship to draw on, for surely she would have remembered the death of Lota’s dear little, promiscuous female mongrel, which had happened only a few years before the stranger appeared that got her started on a new poem.

After this lengthy account of creature troubles (“deaths, deaths and sicknesses”), Bishop switched gears and concluded her letter with a mish-mash of odd and interesting items about life in Rio and even a hint at some world events. These are for the next post.

Bishop would be delighted to know that Nova Scotia has its own well-known “Pink Dog” in the form of Pink Dog Productions. This company created a wonderful video for “Sandpiper” as part of the EB100 celebrations in 2011.

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