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

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 65: Productivity and Domesticity

The final dense paragraph of Bishop’s 5 August 1960 “hurried” letter to Grace was another running list of activities, which were more or less related and dealt with domestic matters. Bishop make a quick leap from the “family tree” to baking, without any transition.

Because of “the bad inflation here,” she told her aunt that the price of bread was “getting worse and worse.” As a result, Bishop took it into her mind to “try to do two or three big loaves once a week.” Bread making must have been a rare task for her prior to this time because she happily declared to her aunt, “I’ve just discovered that I can bake a very good loaf of bread.” This plan wasn’t as straight forward as it might seem because “we use bottled gas up here and hate to use the oven very much for fear we run out.” Ever the Robinson Crusoe, wanting to make this do for that, Bishop was trying to convince Lota (who was herself someone keen on invention — after all, they had designed their own stove for the living room) “to build me an outdoor oven, of mud, the kind they use here — very picturesque, bee-hive shaped.” If such an oven could be constructed, Bishop felt that she could then “bake lots of things.”

Bishop had already decided on one of her favourite loaves: “Do you know a New England bread called ANADAMA bread”? This traditional bread contained “a little cornmeal and molasses.” Bishop declared, “It’s delicious.” She offered to send her aunt the recipe if she didn’t already have it.
Without a pause, Bishop shifted focus to their new “wonderful Portuguese gardener … not a real gardener … but Lota is letting him use several acres of land.” Part of the deal was that Lota paid “for manure” and they split the profits. This ambitious fellow was, in fact, a real farmer who had already grown “900 cauliflower and about half an acre of tomatoes.” He also had “100 artichoke plants, for us, and a lot of endive.” He also planted strawberries, but this crop was not so successful “and the birds ate most of them.” This arrangement meant that they were “having lots of vegetables again.” His industry, “it’s the first time we’ve had anyone any good around,” was challenged by the weather, as Bishop explained: “one week too late and everything rots in the rain.” And this year was a wet one in Brazil. Bishop had been learning from this “gardener”: “celery for example,” she wrote to Grace, “can’t be banked unless you have a roof over it to keep the rains out.”

All this produce had triggered more preserving: “3 dozen jars of marmalade” (they ate an awful lot of marmalade!), plus “a dozen of mustard pickles (all those cauliflowers!).” After all that labour, Bishop noted, “now I am resting on my laurels for awhile.”

With the update about the gardener/farmer, Bishop thought she should report on the maid again, the “newest maid … imported from the interior.” This young woman “had never seen a flush toilet before.” In spite of her ignorance of modern amenities and lack of experience, Bishop noted that “she is very willing and quiet and works awfully hard.” Then she quoted, “as Lota says, ‘in twenty years she’ll be awfully good’.”

Amid all this domesticity, Bishop told Grace that she had “been working hard” at her writing, and reported that she had “sold several poems lately, and have a long long story almost done.” Millier (313) notes that Bishop’s poems “Trollope’s Journal,” “The Riverman,” “Electrical Storm,” and “Song for the Rainy Season,” all appeared in 1960, the latter being published in October, so perhaps at the time of this letter, it was something Bishop had just placed. I am unsure what the story was, but perhaps “The Country Mouse,” which was published in 1961.

All this productivity and domesticity suited Bishop just fine and she observed, “If it weren’t for the dental and financial worries everything would be rosy with us.” This general contentedness would not last, when Brazilian politics intervened later in the year, pulling Lota into public life and ushering in a major shift in their daily activities. But neither of them could see that yet.

They were, as always, watching what was happening in the world: “Meanwhile,” Bishop wrote, “the world goes from bad to worse, doesn’t it … the Belgians reaping what they sowed, in the Congo, and the U.S. reaping what it sowed, in Cuba.” Bishop is referring to the independence of Congo in June of that year and the beginning of a civil war there. And, of course, all the fall out from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Quickly, Bishop signed off with “lots and lots” of love for her aunt and “Phyllis and family,” asking Grace to “please write soon.” Then off she would have gone to Petrópolis to the market and to post her letter.

Bishop’s next letter was written towards the end of September, a less hurried epistle with lots of news.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Rosalee Peppard to perform in Middleton, Nova Scotia

Rosalee Peppard, a beloved member of the Elizabeth Bishop family in Nova Scotia will be performing in Middleton, N.S., in support of the Old Holy Trinity Charitable Trust. Rosalee is a marvellous songwriter and singer who celebrates and honours Nova Scotia's "herstory." I've got my ticket already!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 64: More Gifts

After dispatching the news and responses around family, Bishop turned to incoming matters in her letter of 5 August 1960. First, she expressed her frustration with the delay in getting one very special treat that Grace had sent via Elizabeth Naudin. They were still waiting for this treat to appear, even though the Naudins had been in Rio for a couple of months: “I do wish E would get their things out of customs — we are dying to get that maple syrup.” The prospect of this Nova Scotia gift and “a clipping from the newspaper” had sparked Lota want to purchase an appliance: “a second-hand waffle baker,” and not just any waffle baker. Bishop observed, “it sounds like a HUGE one, for a restaurant.” So enticing was the advent of maple syrup that Lota was going “to see it [the waffle baker] in Rio!” Bishop was not so enthusiastic. Preferring always the small over the large, Bishop declared that she was “against this idea,” since they had a serviceable “little old one, good enough.” One of her concerns was that “a big one might blow out all the fuses, anyway.”

Whether or not Lota closed the deal on this industrial waffle baker is not known. But it would be a couple more months before Bishop and Lota could sate their thirst for this northern liquid. The conclusion to this particular gift isn’t resolved until the end of October! It is a good thing maple syrup keeps for a long time!

Grace’s welcome letter, however, did bring another gift that clearly Bishop appreciated as much as the flavour of maple syrup: “I am delighted to have the family tree — but now I want more.” This “tree” in question was for Bishop’s beloved Pa’s ancestors.
(First page of the Bulmer family tree sent by Grace.)
What is immediately nice about this document is that it is in Grace’s handwriting, a glimpse of her open, loopy holograph. She would have written letters to Bishop, not typed them.

The page lists William Bulmer’s parents — Bishop’s great-grandparents (Horatio Nelson Bulmer and Mary Ann Maxfield) — and his siblings. Bishop would have heard about some of these people (indeed, she would have met some of Pa’s siblings during her childhood), but the names and stories attached to them were a bit hazy in her memory: “I’m not quite sure how this one goes,” wondering if Horatio and Mary were Pa’s parents or grandparents. She leaned to the former. Her confusion was because “I don’t know how old Mary M was when she came over in 1813, etc.”

Grace was fairly accurate, though also a bit vague, compiling this list by memory. While this generation provided Bishop with some ancestral context, it made her want to have some more facts: “Can you tell me what year Pa and Gammie were married, for example?” [8 September 1871]. Then she asked her aunt: “sometime I wish you’d write me out all the dates of your generation — Aunt Maude and all of them.” As good as Bishop’s memory was for things and people, her memory for dates was as iffy as the rest of us.

Bishop was quite taken with Grace’s account of Mariner Bulmer “went to Salt Lake City — Taking 32 head of cattle to city to sell was murdered, supposed, for his money.” On the second page of this “tree,” Grace concluded with the tantalizing tidbit that one of Horatio Nelson’s sisters “married Long John Johnson, who went away on horseback & never returned.” These facts prompted Bishop to observe, “Heavens — we seem to be given to being murdered, and mysterious disappearances! I certainly think there is a wandering streak, as well.”

If the Bulmer ancestors wandered (and a number of them did), the Hutchinsons were the real globe-trotters, and Bishop had heard stories about them during her childhood. Bishop didn’t want to stop with the Bulmers, so she also asked Grace, “Can you get anything on Gammie’s side?” She had heard about “that Tory ancestor of Gammie’s who had a farm in New York state.” She wanted to know “what the names were and where they came from — and where did ‘River Philip’ fit in — was that where Pa lived?” That Tory ancestor was, in fact, part of the Bulmer line: Horatio Nelson’s mother was Sarah Meade (his father John Bulmer’s second wife). It was her father, James G.F. Meade, Horatio Nelson’s grandfather, who was from New York state and who died in the American Revolution. Bishop eventually got the clarification she wanted, including the fact that River Philip, N.S., is where William (Pa) Bulmer’s grandfather settled and where his father was raised. Pa was born and raised in nearby Williamsdale (now a dispersed community deep in the heart of the Cobequid Mountains).

Any of us venturing back even two generations will find the number of ancestors increasing exponentially, and keeping track of everyone is a daunting job. Bishop was no genealogist, or historian for that matter. Her interest in her ancestors was more, it seems, connected to their stories (“we seem to be given to  being murdered…”), the personal stuff, rather than only who was related to whom and when people were born and died.

Over the years, Grace continued to send Bishop information about her ancestors, in various forms. Each such gift was always welcomed and appreciated by her niece. In the end, Bishop declared, “Anything you can hand on I’d like to have…”

The next post concludes this letter with some more talk about cooking and baking.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 63: Word from Aunt Grace

Finally, Bishop heard from her aunt, a welcome letter arriving on Tuesday, 2 August. Bishop sat down to respond on “Friday, August 5th, 1960.” Why the brief gap, especially for a letter that was so welcome, Bishop did not say. And since Fridays were “marketing day and we must soon start off for Petrópolis,” she noted right off the top that “this has to be hurried.” Oddly, though, this letter ended up being nearly two dense pages. If she typed it in a hurry, she managed to compose the longest letter to her aunt in some time.

Once it was sent, this letter would have taken weeks to reach Grace. So Bishop’s urgency was because she wanted to take it with her to mail in Petrópolis. Perhaps she had intended to write only a note, but the need to “speak” to her aunt took over. One wonders if Lota had to wait longer than she expected, before driving down the mountain and into the city. Bishop “wanted to tell” her aunt “how glad and relieved” she was to hear from her “at last. — I’d been getting worried.”

What followed was a rather chaotic letter, with Bishop’s thoughts leaping from subject to subject, another indication of her hurry.

Upon receiving the letter, Bishop reported that she “called up Elizabeth yesterday to tell her — no, the day I got it, Tuesday — but she was out and hasn’t called back.” This observation triggered a little sidebar about how things were going with her cousin. Bishop explained that Elizabeth “has never telephoned me once although I’ve left messages, etc.” Trying to account for this silence and giving Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt, Bishop offered: “I think perhaps she is afraid of the telephone here!” Surely, Bishop knew this reason was as silly as it sounded (perhaps that was her intention, knowing her aunt would get her meaning). Then she added, “Or [afraid of] trying to talk to our maids, etc.,” admitting “it is hard at first.”

Even with this lack of communication, Bishop was intent on fostering a connection, telling Grace that when she and Lota go “down to Rio next week,” she would “go to see E again.” The Rio run was for more dental work: “both Lota and I have to have a tooth pulled, one each that is, next Friday.” In spite of a standing invitation, Elizabeth and Ray Naudin had not yet ventured to Samambaia for a visit: “so far, they’ve had to spend their Saturdays and Sundays apartment hunting, I think.” That “I think” is perhaps another hint Bishop was detecting resistance from her cousin. Even so, Bishop and Lota still wanted “them to come for a day soon.”
(The living room in the house at Samambaia.)
Bishop also reported that “there’s been no milk in Rio for two or three weeks (one can get powered milk, though) and I wonder how she’s liking that!” Bishop had heard something from her cousin, enough to tell Grace that she “seemed very pleased with her cook when I spoke to her.” Cooks were of interest to Bishop, who had been sending her aunt a running commentary on their cook travails. Bishop noted that Elizabeth boasted that her cook “just didn’t go in the kitchen but took what was put on the table.” Bishop was a bit envious of such good fortune, declaring to Grace, “I don’t think she knows how extremely lucky she is — she might have had to try ten cooks!” Then she updated her aunt on their own cook situation: “And we have such a nice girl who can’t cook a bit but we’re trying to hold onto her and her husband because they are such good workers.” Clearly, the training of this young woman continued, with, seemingly, limited success. Bishop noted that on the “weekends when we have company it seems to me I spend all the time in the kitchen cooking and never have a chance to talk to the company…”

After this diversion and update, Bishop got to the primary subject of her letter, though she did not linger on it: “I was glad to hear your heart is all right.” Grace must have had the cardiogram test that Bishop had asked about in an earlier letter. If Grace’s heart was okay, she still needed “medicines for the artery business.” Bishop, ever interested in all things medical, observed “they seem to be learning more about that all the time.” Besides the arteries, Grace’s leg remained an issue and Bishop urged her aunt to “take it easy and keep off your leg as much as you can.”

Knowing that Grace enjoyed a drink now and then, Bishop passed on some advice given by “one older friend of mine,” who “was ordered by her doctor to have two old-fashioned cocktails before dinner each night, to slow down hardening arteries — maybe you’d like to try that!”

All this talk about health prompted Bishop to offer another update: “Poor old Aunt Flossie [that is Florence] — her new home was all too good to last, of course.” Florence was still resident in this nursing home, found for her by her nieces, but Bishop’s cousin Nancy had written that she was “starting to get complaining and full of fight again… She is so difficult.” That said, Bishop surmised that “they are all treating her with more respect, though, since they found all that money hidden away (I told you about that didn’t I?).” Not in any letter that has survived. Though likely Grace would not have been surprised. Bishop “suspect[ed] she [Florence] even did it on purpose, just to show them!” Bishop just couldn’t give Florence a break, concluding, “she is awfully silly, but she has a certain hard-headed streak at the same time — from Grandpa [Bishop], probably!”

Thus ended the first two paragraphs of this hurried letter, which will require two more posts to complete. The next post will focus on gifts.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 62: Getting acquainted

Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated “Fourth of July, 1960.” She had written at least two others in the almost month that had passed since the one on 8 June, one “care of Phyllis” and another “a card to the Village.” Neither of these exist any more. Phyllis was living in New Glasgow, N.S., and Bishop hoped that the address she had “940 East River Road?” was correct. She sent the current letter to Great Village, “Box 21” (the same box that belonged to her grandparents, as she remembered in “In the Village”), but someone had scribbled over it another New Glasgow address: “486 Chisholm St.” This one did not go astray, finding its way to Grace, eventually.

Evidently, Bishop had not received anything from Grace since sending the June letter, which caused her some concern, because Elizabeth Ross Naudin had conveyed the news that Grace “hadn’t been all that well in Montreal.” Bishop confessed that she was “getting worried.” The main issue was Grace’s leg, “the worst trouble.” All Bishop could do was “hope”: that her aunt “all right” and that she was “taking it easy.”

Bishop reported that she was going “to Rio again, by bus,” that very day. The reason for this trip was “the dentist — a damned dying tooth with nerves to be removed, etc.” The deed required her presence for “three or four days,” Bishop confessing that she was “getting awfully sick of it but it can’t be helped.” She would be joined by Lota “tomorrow to drive back — and get one of her teeth attended to!”

After these preliminaries, Bishop got to the meat of this short letter: “I’ve seen Elizabeth very briefly two or three times,” and updated her aunt on their settling in: “yesterday they moved into a furnished apartment,” still a temporary situation, “some friend went to Europe for two months,” because even though the ship carrying their belongings had arrived, “everything (including the maple syrup!) is waiting on the docks.” Their stuff hadn’t yet cleared customs. At the bottom of the letter in her characteristic scrawl, Bishop added: “How much do I owe you for the syrup?” Grace’s answer, which was undoubtedly “nothing,” has not survived.
Getting acquainted with her cousin and family was proving to be a bit more difficult than perhaps Bishop expected. Their invitation to the Naudins to visit Samambaia would be accepted only when they could find “someone to leave the children with — (called a babá, here).” Usually a big hit with little ones, Bishop reported that “the children seem scared to death of me — I don’t’ think I’ve ever had such an awful effect on small children before!” Elizabeth Naudin reasonably argued that “they were upset by the trip and by all the strangeness.” Bishop, dubious, wrote, “She’s probably right.” But their response to her surprised and puzzled her: “the little one finally got to the point of smiling at me last time — but Suzanne just looks like thunder.” Bishop conceded that this move required “a big ‘adjustment’, I suppose, particularly if one has never travelled before, or lived in tropical countries.” Being such an inveterate traveller, perhaps Bishop couldn’t quite empathize with the disruptive nature of travel and moving to a new place. She observed that she “was more or less prepared for Brazil, after Florida — they’re a lot alike.”
(Worcester, 50th anniversary WPI, 2004)
Bishop wondered if they might be “baffled by the Negroes — I suppose they don’t see many in Montreal!” As wary as the little girls were, Bishop reported to Grace that Elizabeth herself was “getting along fine and meeting all [Ray’s] friends and relations.”

After these reports and musings, Bishop quickly shifted gears, “I must pack, see about lunch, and take a bath,” before heading to Rio. She concluded her letter with the usual series of closings: “I do hope you are all right” — urging Grace to “Please don’t go working, now, or gadding about.” Bishop hoped Grace had a good doctor and she wanted her aunt to write “what the doctor says.”

The final short paragraph was a brief list: “Remember me to Phyllis and Ernie and everyone”; “is Buddy going to get married now?”; “How is the weather?”; “The strawberries?” (it was the height of strawberry season in NS). And the final wistful: “Wish I cold fly up for a visit — the fares are fearful, though.” She ended with a little extra stress this time: “With much love.” And her hurried name scratched in pen.

Bishop sent this letter on the day she wrote it (not always the case). Her next epistle, a much longer one, was exactly a month later, and will be taken up in the next post.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 61: Meeting her cousin

Bishop typed her next letter to Grace just over two weeks later, 8 June 1960. This letter was written in Rio, where Bishop had just arrived to tend to various matters, including “the dentist again.” Upon her arrival, “night before last,” she was surprised to find “a note from Elizabeth [Ross Naudin],” who was already in Brazil, arriving a few weeks sooner than expected. Bishop told Grace that it was only “just luck” that she got her cousin’s letter because, “I NEVER use this address — that’s why I sent both you and Mary my telephone numbers and said for her [Elizabeth] to be sure to call me up, or use the Petrópolis mail box.” Bishop noted that Elizabeth, Ray and their daughters were “just up the street, at the Copacabana Hotel and has been here two weeks already.” Elizabeth Naudin had written to Bishop before they left New York to “say they were coming sooner than expected,” but that letter “never did reach me.” So, not the best start to getting acquainted.
Even before all this explanation, Bishop launched her letter with the news that mattered most to her: “Elizabeth tells me that you haven’t been at all well.” If you recall, Grace had spent some considerable time with her sister Mary in Montréal, after Mary’s husband died. But at this point, Elizabeth reported to Bishop that “she thinks you are staying with Phyllis now.” Bishop was deeply concerned about her aunt, hoping that “you’ve been to the doctor and had the cardiogram made and everything.” She urged her aunt to write, “please tell me — and how the leg is, too.”

Then Bishop offered an account of visiting her cousin, probably for the first time: “I went to see her yesterday — both she and the babies have had a touch of the flu.” Bishop assured Grace that in spite of that, they “seemed to be all right.” Her first observation was about the children, “They are very cute, aren’t they — particularly Suzanne.” She had also met Ray Naudin, briefly: “nice-looking, isn’t he, and seems very bright.”

The next big task for the Naudins was finding an apartment, which Bishop said might prove difficult. She had already “asked a couple of friends of mine who are in the real estate business.” She then confirmed what Grace already knew, “they seem to have plenty of money and that’s always a help!” Ray Naudin worked for the Otis elevator company.

Then Bishop finally got around to assessing her cousin, who “looks so much like Mary, doesn’t she — at least the upper part of her face does,” concluding “she just missed being a real beauty.”

Bishop told her aunt that she would “try to get in again before we go back, today or tomorrow.” And noted that she and Lota had invited “them to come up for a day with us soon.” Ever practical, Bishop observed that it was “a pity they didn’t bring their car.” Having moved there to live for some time meant “Ray had the right to being one.” Expensive as that might have been, Bishop observed that cars “cost 3 or four times as much here as at home.”

As mentioned before, Ray was a Brazilian, but he had been living in the US for some time. Bishop reported Ray’s astonishment of the changes to Rio during “the 13 years he’s been away,” so much so “that he had to buy a map of the city to find how way around!”

Even though the bulk of the Naudins’ possessions had not arrived, her cousin’s arrival had brought some gifts from Grace for Bishop and Lota: “Thank you so much for the ‘Export A’ cigarettes — I am smoking one right now.” Bishop excitedly wrote, “E says there are more goodies coming — wonderful.”

With all of this taken care of, Bishop offered an update about Aunt Florence, who if you remember, had a “cracked leg.” Bishop reported that the injury was “getting better very fast — she was already walking around in a ‘walker’.” More significantly, the cousins on that side had “found a Rest Home for her, not very expensive, considering.” Concluding, “I think it all to the good, really — she shouldn’t be living alone.” She had heard this news from her cousin Kay Sargent who had written: “keep your fingers crossed.” The caution being that she might not “stay put” and might “fight with everyone! Poor old thing.”

As this short letter began to wind down, Bishop returned to Grace’s health: “I do hope you are feeling better and than you have good medical care, etc.” And urged her to write again, “let me hear from you.” She worried that Grace had “over-done [things] at Mary’s” Then the first notice of the weather, “It has been very cold, for here.” But the stalwart Canadian Elizabeth Naudin and her two little daughters already “had been in swimming.” Quickly signing off, Bishop noted that she had “hundreds of things to do while in the city,” but didn’t forget to say “Remember me to Phyllis and Ernie.” With her usual “much love,” she scribbled her name at the bottom of this one-pager.

Bishop’s next extant letter was written in early July. It will comprise the next post.