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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 60: Cats, marmalade and capitals

Once Bishop got family and world affairs tended to, she shifted gears quickly in her letter of 22 May 1960, revealing that she did in fact have some news to tell her aunt.. She announced that “yesterday we had a lot of people to tea — in a rain storm.” The preceding week had been “clear and beautiful,” which must have prompted the plan to have folks in, but the needed “nice week-end” did not materialize, and Bishop somberly noted, “it looks as if it would pour all day today, too.”

Bishop’s reason for mentioning the gathering was to tell Grace about “one couple … named ‘Featherstone’ — don’t you love that name?”* Bishop noted that the husband was English and the wife an American and explained: “we don’t know them at all, but she is the one who gave us the Siamese cat and so I think they came to see how we were treating him.” Then Bishop engaged in a quick character sketch: “Mrs. F has inuumerable [sic] cats; she is very very shy, with big eyes.” Bishop herself had fetched the cat, “Suzuki,” going to their home, “a huge neglected old house that smelt very much of cat.” Engaging in a bit of stereotype-hyperbole, perhaps, Bishop then noted, “she really seemed like a witch.”

As for “Mr. F,” Bishop revealed that he didn’t “care much for all the cats,” and was “apt to whisper to the guests, ‘wouldn’t you like a cat?’”

This background segued into a brief character sketch of Suzuki, who, according to Bishop was “a darling — much brighter than the other two,” which immediately prompted the next statement: “Our breakfasts are a mess.” Bishop explained again: “I have a tray at seven o’clock and Lota comes in my room to have breakfast, too.” Immediately on her heels arrived the cats: “what with Lota and three cats all into the tray simultaneously,” with Suzuki talking “all the time, too — something is always getting upset or somebody’s nose is always getting burned.” Well, I am trying to imagine this scene with its talking, upsetting and burning! Once the hubbub subsided, Bishop noted, “then they all bathe each other madly (Lota and I don’t!) and then go to sleep in a heap.”

From the Featherstones to Suzuki to breakfast mayhem, Bishop then made another leap: to marmalade, of course. “This is marmalade season,” she declared. She’d already sent Grace some recipes for marmalade, and now Bishop made a modest boast: “I’m really getting pretty good at it.” (One wonders if the cook was learning, too.) She reported that she had made “2 dozen jars” and was still working on “a batch of tangerine marmalade — we have loads of tangerines, mostly too sour to eat, but they make wonderful marmalade — jells very quickly and a lovely bright orange.” Remembering that her cousin would be arriving in the near future, Bishop assured Grace, “I’ll give Elizabeth some to start her off!”

Just as family and world affairs were linked at the beginning of this letter, so this intimate domestic news somehow triggered the next big leap and announcement that involved some domestic news about Brazil itself. The next paragraph began abruptly: “Brazil changed its capital lastmonth — or maybe you saw something about it in the paper?” Bishop explained how the capital moved from Rio to “the new city, Brazilia [sic].” Bishop noted that Rio had become “a new state, the Estado do Guanabara (that’s the name of the bay Rio’s on).” To make matters more confusing, Bishop wrote that Samambaia/Petrópolis, where they lived, was “still in the Estado do Rio de Janeiro.” To offer Grace a point of comparison, she noted: “As if we lived in Albany, New York, but the city of New York was in Connecticut. (My address is the same.)” Well, that clarifies it for me!?
(Images of Brasilia)
Bishop held some negative views of this big shift in Brazilian geo-politics, though she did not editorialize in this letter. Rather, she made another abrupt leap, perhaps one which obliquely reflected her unspoken opinion that Brasilia was wrong-headed: “Our new cook can’t cook anything except corn meal muffins and mashed potatoes — she has mastered them.” Sadly, the cook had not mastered broiling a steak or frying an egg, “which seems so much easier, to me.” (I guess marmalade was out of the question!) Even so, they were putting up with her because “her husband is a dream … works and polishes all day long and we have never been so clean in our lives.”

Bishop had reached the end of her all over the place epistle, several dense paragraphs filled with all manner of oddly related subjects. These paragraphs took up the entire page, and not wanting to take up another sheet (perhaps because she might again go, as Stephen Leacock once wrote: “madly off in all directions”), she turned the page horizontal in her typewriter and added to the left side: “How is Phyllis? Did she get my note? I hope I’ll hear from you soon — if you see Aunt Mabel tell  her I’m going to write — How is your health? Your leg? With much love,” then in tiny holograph, “Elizabeth.”

Still not done, but without any more room to type out a postscript, Bishop scribbled in the top left-hand corner: “Aunt F[lorence] broke — or cracked a thigh-bone. She is in Worcester Memorial Hospital — BELMONT St. Maybe you could send her a card — The cousins are all so fed up with the poor cranky old thing.” Nothing like using every inch of her stationary and getting in another jab at poor Aunt F.

Only a couple of weeks passed before Bishop penned another letter, 8 June, which will commence the next post.

*Note: A search of Featherstone shows that it is the name of a town in Yorkshire, as well as a number of other places, and a winery in Ontario.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 59: Family and world affairs

The next extant letter Bishop sent Grace is dated “May 22nd? — 1960.” It is nice to know that Bishop blurred her days and weeks sometimes, living up in the mountains. In any case, this letter was written two months after the previous one. It appears that there had been only a few exchanges in the interim and Bishop had lost track of the back and forth. She started off, “I’m not sure whether I owe you a letter or not but I am wondering where you are and how you are.” If she had not heard recently from Aunt Grace, she had heard from Aunt Mary, a letter informing her of the death of Mary’s husband, John Kenneth (Jack) Ross. Jack had died late in 1959, so there had been some delay in Bishop hearing this news.

Mary and Jack were married in June 1928 in Montréal. Bishop had met him at least once, when she visited her grandmother there in 1930 (Elizabeth Bulmer stayed with Mary for awhile after William Bulmer’s death; she herself dying in 1931). But direct contact with the Rosses after that was intermittent, if at all. [You can see a lovely photo of the young Mary and Jack Ross here.]

After “wondering” about Grace’s logistics, Bishop immediately confirmed to her aunt that she had received news of the loss, “I was awfully sad about Jack — yet perhaps it is better to die of something that is still pretty incurable like that, than of pneumonia or something that one thinks might have been cured.” The “that” was leukemia, as Bishop then observed, “I’ve known a couple of much younger people who died of luekemia  [sic].” Even so, Bishop knew little about the disease itself, “What does cause it, anyway? Do the doctors know?”

The news had come directly from Mary, “a remarkably calm-sounding letter.” This epistle had been written shortly after Jack’s death, but the long transit meant Bishop had to put herself back in time, “I imagine she wouldn’t feel really exhausted until a week or so later.” Mary must have indicated that Grace was with her, thus accounting, perhaps, for a delay in Grace herself writing to Bishop: “Perhaps you are still with her,” Bishop wondered, but she decided to send her letter to Great Village, knowing it would eventually reach her aunt (if Grace was still with Mary, Bishop assumed the letter would be forwarded because she noted, “If you are [still with Mary], give her my love.”)

Then Bishop declared, “I haven’t any news at all.” At least not compared to this sorrowful family news and the situation in the world: “In fact,” Bishop wrote, “all we can think about is world news.” May 1960 was an eventful, troubling month, with tensions between the US and Russia at a high level, prompting Bishop to “hope and pray for nothing to happen” — that is, nothing worse than what had already happened. On 1 May the Russians shot down a US plane which had crossed into its air space. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers survived the crash and was taken prisoner. The rhetoric of the time sounds mild compared to the rhetoric that gets spewed by politicians and fanatics on social media these days, but it was ominous enough.
(Gary Powers)
Bishop explained the origin of their information: “We have to go to town for the papers, but we listen to the news on the radio.” For Bishop, the latter was a bit frustrating because “they never give much … and usually the Portugese [sic] goes too fast for me to get it all.” As a result “Lot has to tell me afterwards what they said.”

Even so, they learned enough for Bishop to editorialize: “The U.S. certainly put its foot in it, didn’t it — and that damned Krutchev [sic] certainly took advantage of it.” In the face of this succinct and astute commentary, one can only say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

The next paragraph, for the next post, shifts to Bishop’s inner circle and reveals that she did actually have some news, of a domestic kind.

An Elizabeth Bishop Archive in Indiana

The Wylie House Museum
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

The Wylie House Museum contains the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Bradley (1908 – 1979), a friend from Camp Chequesset on Cape Cod.  For further information on the contents of this archival holding, click this link: 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 58: A strange list

The final major subject of Bishop’s letter of 25 March 1960 related to one of her maternal cousins, Elizabeth Ross Naudin, the daughter of Bishop’s youngest aunt, Mary Bulmer Ross. Elizabeth was married to a Brazilian, Ray Naudin, who had attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Grace had clearly informed Bishop in one of her recent letters that Elizabeth, Ray and their daughters were going to Brazil to live. Bishop had never met this cousin and in the concluding paragraph of the letter, she offers some advice for Grace to pass on, about what they should bring with them.

She starts this “advice column” with the first and only weather report of this epistle: “It rains and rains and we’re sick of it.” Bishop told her aunt that it was “our big marketing day” and she would be heading to Petrópolis to do the shopping, where she would post the letter in question. Apparently, there was enough lead time for the slow boat to deliver the advice to Grace, and from Grace to Elizabeth, before the latter reached Brazil. There had already been some sort of exchange between Grace and Elizabeth Naudin about what her aunt wanted to send along for Bishop, as Bishop notes: “don’t bother about the chocolate unless E is coming by boat or isn’t going to use up her weight limit, etc.”

Then Bishop offered an odd list (perhaps one of her strangest lists) of essentials that it was best to bring: “if she likes tea … bring a good supply”; “Also Tampax (if she uses that! — the Brazilian substitute is no good)”; “enough shoes for the three years wouldn’t be a bad idea either.” Bishop explained further about the shoes: “You can get them made to order but the price is going up all the time, and the ones you buy are apt to be not too good and they rarely seem to fit ‘northern’ feet.” After this curious assortment, she gets to a more usual item: “If they smoke they can each bring in two cartons of cigarettes I think.” Both Bishop and Lota smoked and in the margin of the letter, in her awful scrawl, Bishop made a request, “Lota would love some Canadian cigarettes Players — her favorite kind — just 1 pkg as a surprise —?” Typed at the top of the page, Bishop noted that during the February trip down the Amazon, she had made her own attempt: “I went to the smugglers in Belem trying to get her some [cigarettes] — found 2 packages at 50¢ each.”

Following the cigarettes, Bishop quickly added that she would “certainly adore a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey but they’d better bring it for themselves if they use it.” The list continued: “any prescriptions from the doctor they’d better bring all written out.” This segued into what Bishop and Brazil could offer them: “Tell her I am acquainted with excellent doctors, pediatricians and 2 dentists in Rio [where they would be living] … an allergist, and a whole set of psychiatrists”[you never know what you might need!], which Bishop quickly qualified, “who happen to be friends of ours!”
After this who’s who of professionals, Bishop returned to the material, literally, “Extra needles and good cotton thread — the thread is lousy here.” Bishop concluded: “just about everything in the way of toilet articles, common medicines, etc you can get here now — plastics [whatever that means?] — cornflakes,” and finally, “good milk, at last — pasteurized.”

Fearing she had left something out of this truly diverse congregation of needs, Bishop signed off with “Ask me for all information!” and “Much love.”


I met Elizabeth and Ray Naudin in 1995, when they visited Nova Scotia for an Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia event, when Tom Travisano gave the one and only Elizabeth Bishop Memorial Lecture at St. James Church in Great Village. The Naudins also reconnected, after many years, with Phyllis Sutherland.
(L. to r. Tom Travisano, Elizabeth Ross Naudin,
Phyllis Sutherland, Sandra Barry, 1995. Photo by Ray Naudin.)
I again encountered the Naudins in Worcester in 1997, at a big Bishop conference hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It was during this conference when a gathering was held in Hope Cemetery to unveil the new inscription on Bishop’s gravestone. Elizabeth spoke at the graveside that day. The daughter of one of Bishop’s paternal cousins, Judith Sargent, also attended this ceremony.
(L. Judith Sargent; r. Elizabeth Naudin,
in front of EB's gravestone, 1997. Photo by Sandra Barry)
I stayed in touch with Elizabeth Naudin, by correspondence, for many years. She was in possession of a collection of paintings done by George W. Hutchinson and his son Benjamin Hutchinson, as well as by George’s friend and colleague Bertram Knight Easton. Most of these paintings are small water-colours, but they also include the painting that is the subject of Bishop’s poem “Large Bad Picture.” Elizabeth and Ray Naudin died in 2008. The paintings were inherited by their three daughters.

Another gap follows the March letter, the next one picking up the narrative on “Sunday morning, May 22nd?”

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 57: The cook saga

The next major topic in Bishop’s letter of 25 March 1960 was an update on the cook situation. When Bishop came to live with Lota, she joined a household that had a number of servants. It was not the first time, however, that Bishop interacted with domestic help. Her most famous housekeeper was Hannah Almyda, who helped Bishop and Louise Crane when they lived in Key West, Florida, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bishop was so fond of and devoted to Hannah, that she tried to write a poem for her, “Hannah A.,” which remained unfinished:
… who cared for, much too long,
the one ungainly young
who couldn’t learn his song
or one stupid mate
whose only active thought
— to flap his wings, & fight —
kept quarrelling half the night
for rotting meat … (Edgar Allan Poe, 53)

Bishop’s conceit in this abandoned poem turned Hannah into a sacrificing swan. The “ungainly young” and “stupid mate” must have been the son and husband indicated in the 1940 census for Key West.

Interesting to note that Hannah died just a few months before Bishop, at the ripe old age of 86 (almost as old as Grace when she died in 1977). One wonders if Bishop knew.

In Lota’s household, the “help” generally consisted of a cook and a gardener. Over the years, these positions were sometimes filled by a married couple and, as a result, a number of babies were born to the cooks, one of whom, in the 1950s, was named after Bishop. The exact reason why they had lost their most recent cook, as mentioned in Bishop’s previous letter, is not clear. But the new one came in for a detailed account.

This new cook was a “country girl,” who was “so primitive, poor dear,” by which Bishop meant inexperienced and in need of a lot of training (one perhaps thinks of her use of this word in relation to Gregorio Valdes, the artist she and Louise Crane supported in Key West). Perhaps it was not so much that the cook was chosen as was her husband, who “is an excellent worker — and they’re neat and quiet.” So, another package deal. Apparently, it was mainly Bishop’s task to teach the young woman (generally speaking, Bishop’s purview was the kitchen, Lota’s was the house and yard) how to prepare the food they preferred (though the previous one also taught Bishop how to make Brazilian food.

Bishop felt this cook-in-training had potential, but, as she told Grace, “she knows nothing at all and what’s more she thinks everything we do is funny.” Bishop offered an example: “I was stuffing some green peppers with various leftovers, to show her how, and she was absolutely convulsed by that — and called the husband, ‘Albertinho’, to come to see what the crazy American was doing.”

Even if food preparation/instruction was left to Bishop, Lota also put her oar into the mix regarding household chores: “…when Lota tells her not to stack the plates, to take them from the table two at a time, she giggles some more and says innocently ‘But that would take all night!’ — and of course her logic is perfectly good and we’re just fearfully fussy and conventional.”

Bishop admitted to her aunt that “by paying a little more” they could get a better cook from Rio. The problem with doing that, however, was this person “would be lonely in the country and want to go to town all the time, etc.” So, they had opted to take on the “hard work” of training this young woman, who certainly had the capacity to see the humour in the domestic, something Bishop should have appreciated, since much of her own work highlights the vagaries, foibles and ironies of this realm.

It appears that the training was moderately successful, because the rest of the letters for this year do not have any more teaching tales to relate, though it is clear that Bishop remained the kitchen supervisor, perhaps because the lessons continued for some time.

The final subject of this letter introduces another member of Bishop’s maternal family, Mary Bulmer Ross’s daughter Elizabeth Ross Naudin, who Bishop met for the first time when she and her family took up residence in Rio later in the year.

Update: In Post 56, I mentioned a book Grace had sent Elizabeth, some sort of local history of Colchester County written by someone named Crowe. Ever faithful and all-knowing John Barnstead checked the holdings of Nova Scotia bookseller John W. Doull and came up with a possible candidate: Edwin M. Crowe’s The Town of Stewiacke. Although it was done for Canada’s centenary in 1967, it appears from the listing that parts of this work perhaps circulated separately in the late1950s and early 1960s. The new archivist at the Colchester Historeum, Ashley Sutherland (I wonder if she is any relation to Phyllis Sutherland’s husband Ernest), got back to me that she is investigating if the museum has any books like this one from that time. If she can solve the mystery, I’ll post another update.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 56: Gifts

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 25 March 1960. Nearly two months had passed, but this gap was not empty, because Bishop opened with an immediate and direct acknowledgement of her own steady correspondence and for gifts from her aunt. Bishop started, “I seem to be writing to you every day this week” (alas, it appears that these communications have vanished). She then explains that “this [the letter she was then writing] is just to say that your package did arrive, yesterday — Lota went to mail you my postcard and got it.”

As conscientious as Grace and Phyllis were in preserving Bishop’s letters, not all of them survived. Some were lost in transit. Some went missing because of Grace’s late-life peripateticism and Phyllis’s very busy household. It is a testament to how much these letters meant to both women that so many of them still exist.

A package was always most welcome. One of the items it contained was a book about Colchester County history written by someone with the last name of Crowe. I did an internet search to no avail. I also searched Elizabeth Bishop’s personal library listing at Vassar College, but found no candidate. I have sent a query to the archivist at the Colchester Historeum, who might be able to solve the mystery (if that happens, I will post an update). In any case, this book was a big hit: “Thank you ever so much,” Bishop wrote, “I read the book right straight through last night in bed (a cold rainy night and I was delighted to have something new to read).”

Those of us familiar with Bishop’s poetry immediately recognize a phrase in this sentence: “right straight through,” which recurs in her late poem “In the Waiting Room,” when a nearly seven year old Bishop sits in a dentist’s waiting room on a cold snowy February evening in 1918, reading a National Geographic “right straight through.” The poem was written many years after this unexpected encounter with Colchester County history: “so many of the names are familiar to me and of course I like anything about those ships.” As I have shown in Lifting Yesterday, Bishop’s poems and stories emerge from a vast, non-linear matrix: An original event was perhaps remembered in a later experience, which provided a phrase about the earlier event, which was then put in the poem many years later. Bishop was a recycling poet par excellence, with a phenomenal memory.

The other most welcome gift was something more ordinary: a petticoat sent from her cousin Phyllis. I had to go searching for just what this might be, and discovered all manner of images for such undergarments on the internet.
Essentially, it is what I grew up calling a slip, though they could be fairly elaborate. For me, this term is associated with a television show called Petticoat Junction, which ran from 1963 to 1970 (but set in an earlier time). Still, even in the early 60s, some women wore such clothing.

Bishop seemed quite pleased with this practical offering, assuring Grace that it was her size and to “thank Phyllis for me.” Scribbled in her indecipherable scrawl in the margin at this point was: “I’ll write when I find the address — no — here it is — I’ll write her.” This garment was “the kind I use here almost always (when I use any!)” — Bishop’s preference was slacks (even jeans). But she continued: “it is so much cooler under cotton dresses, in Rio — where it is so hot when we have to go there in the ‘summer’.” Then Bishop recounts a story, which could have applied to one of the “grandchildren”: “a friend made me one for Christmas and I ripped it all down one side climbing a fence to take a photograph, on my recent trip [Bishop took a trip “down the Amazon River from Manaus to Belém … in February 1960.” (Millier, 306)] … so at the moment I was petticoatless.” As other references in this letter show, Grace had already been told about this trip, perhaps in postcards. Bishop writes to Grace as if the knowledge and context were in place.

After the petticoat mishap story, Bishop again thanks her aunt and writes, “I wish I could send you things, but it is impossible unless I find someone going to Canada — which never seems to happen.”

Before shifting to her next major subject, Bishop returns to the book Grace had sent, wondering if her aunt knew “the Crowe man who wrote” it. She recognized so much: “All those names — Congdon, Crowe, etc — seem so familiar but I’m not sure I ever saw him,” meaning the author. As she started to turn away from the warmth of her response to this gift she concluded, “I do like it very much. And weren’t those females heroic?”

As the letter continues, Grace gets an update about the cook situation.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 55: A new decade begins

Bishop’s first letter of the new year, and another decade, was rather late in the writing and sending, 1 February 1960. She explained to her aunt the reason for the delay: “a bad case of bronchitis for quite a while — it has cleared up now, but I didn’t start the New Year very energetically.” She assured Grace that she had “had a nice Christmas at Cabo Frio,” but this sickness and some other domestic activities had postponed a letter.

For the first time in ages, this brief letter was hand-written. Bishop gives no explanation why, only an acknowledgement that she was “sure you can’t read a word of this so I’ll stop.”

The stationary was also unusual and appears to have been a sort of hand-made affair. Bishop starts the letter with an explanation of the image at its beginning: “Isn’t this lovely? It says LOVE CONQUERS. I think servant girls here must still use this paper — and their boy-friends.” Bishop explained that it could be purchased “in all the stationary stores” and it cost “4¢ each + envelope.”

Bishop knew that she hadn’t “written for a long time” and as a result had forgot “what was going on when I wrote last.” So she caught her aunt up on her news. First was the weather: “the rainiest summer I ever remember here.” As a result, “the roof sprung a leak over the head of my bed.” The occupants of the house had increased: “We now have 3 cats.” One of them was a “Siamese kitten” Lota had acquired. “After awful scenes of jealousy they are all getting along beautifully, giving each other baths.”

As usual, “whenever the weather allows, we have the ‘grandchildren’ up for a swim.” Bishop acknowledged the oddness of two middle-aged women hosting such a brood: “You should see L. & me, each with a small child strangling us from behind, splashing around …[the] swimming hole .... it is very exhausting.” The grandchild who got a story in this letter was one nicknamed “KEEKA,” who was being taught how “to play hide-and-seek”: “He can seek very well, but every time he hides (in L’s bedroom) he runs out & shouts ‘I hid under grandma’s bed!’ We told him it had to be a secret — so finally he would go & hide, rush past us all, & go & shout where he’d hidden … out the door.”

Bishop promised her aunt that “photographs will eventually appear.”

Having given her news, she concluded with a few usual questions: “How are you & are you still working at the Home? Is there lots of snow? Is it very cold?” She signed off with “Lota sends her regards” and “much love,” but then in popped a final bit of news: “We are losing our cook, after 7 years.” While this severing was “more or less mutual, since she has been getting pretty impossible,” they were at a loss, not knowing “what to do next.”

This rather hastily penned epistle was an unassuming start to a new decade, one which would see tremendous change in Bishop’s life, a decade that held the greatest tragedy of her adult life (Lota’s death in 1967). But in the first months of 1960, Bishop was perhaps still preoccupied with and weary from being sick to pay much attention to this temporal shift. It appears that she was slow getting started on much of her correspondence that year. Her first letter to Lowell was written two weeks later, 15 February. One Art’s first letter for this year is to Lloyd Frankenberg, on “22 March (I think),” and she doesn’t get back in touch with Howard Moss, her New Yorker editor, until “May 10?” (seems she was having some trouble keeping track of what day it was).

This somewhat mundane commencement to what will prove to be a momentous decade only goes to prove, we cannot predict the future based on today’s events.

Bishop’s next extant letter was almost two months later, though it appears once again that not all the letters survived. The next post will take up the cook saga and other matters.