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

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.

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