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

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.

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