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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 69: Great-Uncle George

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt was typed on 18 October 1960. She opened with an acknowledgement of receipt of a letter from Grace, the day she had send her previous letter: “Did you notice on the back of the envelope of my last letter that I’d written I’d just got yours at the P.O.?” This back and forth was not always in sync, but for Bishop, it didn’t matter when her aunt’s letters came, they were always welcome. Even so, it took her a couple of weeks to settle again to write to Grace.

The letter from Grace contained more “family-tree” material. Bishop was delighted and told her aunt that she was “going to try to put it in tying” (clearly Grace had sent more holograph) “and maybe even use some of it in a couple of N.S. stories I’ve been working away at slowly.” This batch of family material must have focused on the Hutchinson side of things because Bishop next expressed her delight in a photo that was included: “I loved the photograph of great-uncle George and dear Lily before the war.” This was of course George W. Hutchinson, the painter of “Large Bad Picture” and the “Poem” painting. Lily was George’s second wife, Lily Yerbury.
(George W. Hutchinson and Lily Yerbury Hutchinson, circa 1920s.)
George was still very much alive when Bishop began to travel to Europe in the late 1930s (he lived until 1942, dying just shy of 90). Twice, Bishop had been in England, near enough to visit, but never managed to do so. “I am so sorry I didn’t get to see him the two times I was in London before the war.” These visits to the land of all her ancestors were both brief and she noted that “the first time I was sick in bed most of the time.” So, she lost her chance to see one of her most intriguing relatives.

Bishop remembered a “nice photograph … of him seated outside his rose-covered cottage” and asked Grace if she still had it. That cottage was “Thelma” in Clacton-on-sea. In is later years, George loved growing roses. Bishop wondered, “who has all the paintings now?” These paintings have dispersed all over, some remaining with the extended Bulmer family, a good number of them in the possession of Pat and Graham Kench in England, some remaining with George’s direct descendents, particularly his great-grandson Matthew Hutchinson (the grandson of George’s son Ben and Ben’s son Marty). Some of George’s paintings are in the archives at Acadia University and some in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Bishop would perhaps be amazed by how widely dispersed his legacy is.

Bishop also remembered “one [Hutchinson painting] Aunt Maud[e] had — a sort of swampy scene with a gray and white sky — remember it?” Two paintings similar to this one, are located in the archives at Acadia. These ponderings prompted her to say, “Sometime I’d love to have one of his paintings if I could.” She was already in possession of “one tiny water color he did very late in life — not as good as the earlier ones.” Just what this painting might be is a mystery. It cannot be the “Poem” painting, which was done early in his life and is a tiny oil (this painting was sold in 2011 to Rachel Jacoff of Boston). As far as I know, it was not in Bishop’s estate when she died.

Perhaps it was the “Poem” painting that Grace sent to Bishop, to fulfill this request. In any case, Bishop noted, “as you can see — I’m in the market for any old souvenirs and I love photographs.” Her concern, however, was that she was “so far away and it isn’t very safe to send things.” And certainly, she wouldn’t want precious family mementos to go missing. She concluded that it might be best to wait until “when I do get to visit you….”
(George W. Hutchinson, circa 1890s.)
Before shifting gears to update life in Samambaia, Bishop asked one more question, about another uncle: “How is Uncle George?” meaning George Shepherdson, Maude’s husband. Bishop had somehow heard enough about him in Grace’s letters to remark: “I do hope he has given up driving!” In parenthesis she added, “And I want that watch, damn it.” She was referring to a watch that had belonged to her father that George Shepherdson was in possession of. This watch surfaces again, so perhaps Grace made the effort to act on this declaration. With such distance between them, it always took real time for exchanges to occur.

After all this family talk, Bishop turned to daily life up in the mountains, which will comprise the next post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 68: Fire

After her lively account of the Partay trip, Bishop jumped right into her next subject in the 23 September 1960 letter: bread. In a previous letter, Bishop had announced to her aunt that she had “been going in for bread-making” and had found that she was, to her surprise, pretty good at it. She reiterated that she had thought bread “was much harder to make” than it turned out to be, and she boasted, “now I make oatmeal bread, raisin bread, wheat germ (wonderful for toast) etc etc.”

She had also mentioned that she asked Lota to build her an outdoor oven for the task, because it would help conserve the bottled gas they had to use for the regular oven. With this letter, Bishop was able to report much progress in this matter. She wrote, “We are starting our outdoor oven.” She even drew a little picture in the margin for Grace, to accompany her description: “bricks and mortar — ours is right on a flat rock that happens to be near the kitchen, so it doesn’t need any floor, even — just waist-high.” They could “buy the oven door” already made.
Much to Bishop’s delight, a friend had loaned her “an old copy of the famous ‘Mrs Beeton’s’ cookbook,” and she found “that in 1897 she said that an oven exactly like the one we’re building make the best bread of all.”
Bishop explained further, “You put in a stack of wood, let it burn up, then scrape the ashes out with a hoe, and put the bread in.” All of this was, delightfully, “very primitive,” a condition Bishop approved of immensely.

If they needed to be to conserve the bottled gas, on the other hand “we have plenty of wood around,” and even better “a man to do the cleaning out!” Finally, when completed, the oven would be “white-washed” and Bishop proudly declared it would look “very quaint indeed.”

If fire in the oven wasn’t enough, Bishop then tells Grace, “This is what they call the ‘month of fires’ here because it is always so dry.” As a result there were “so many brush fires — I dread it.” This dangerous season had “so far” not taken any of Lota’s trees, but Bishop noted that the fires had come “awfully close and every night we can count five or six fires burning on the mountains around us.” Dreadful indeed! The other concern for Bishop during this was her asthma “from all the dust and smoke.”

Bishop again sent this letter on the same day she wrote it because, as she told her aunt, “today’s the big marketing day.” Their provisions had been depleted because “last Sunday we had five people here, and five more came unexpectedly for tea,” so she had “a list a mile long” to replenish.

Ever keen to write about food, Bishop told Grace that this large gathering of company were served “a big beef and kidney pie” with “stewed tomatoes (we had too many to use up!)” and for dessert “caramalized pears.” In case Grace did not know this particular delicacy, Bishop sent her an “easy to make” recipe: “cut them up in eighths and put them in a very hot oven” (though perhaps not the beehive version) “with a lot of sugar on top, and a little butter.” After “about fifteen minutes,” when “they are beginning to burn and get caramel-y, then you throw on a cup of cream — or you can skip that.” Simple indeed, but Bishop noted that “everyone thinks they are something fearfully difficult to do.”

Bishop began to wind down at this point, asking, as usual, “how is the leg? — and how is the diet, etc.?” This prompted Bishop to note that “Lota has been gaining a bit and I am very severe with her.” Bread, beef and kidney pie, caramalized pears — no wonder she was having trouble getting “into her city clothes.” Bishop assured her dieting aunt that she enforced “only a salad for lunch, and beef and vegetables for dinner, plus an orange or two” for their regimen, except, of course, when company came! Scribbled in the margin, “(& 1 piece of toast for breakfast)” – hard to do with multiple kinds of bread coming out of that new oven!

The final quick paragraph asked, as always, “Please let me hear from you.” Bishop also told her aunt, “I’m sending some cards to Ruth Hill.” Ruth Hill was one of Gertrude Bulmer Bishop’s best friends, who appears in “In the Village”: “Miss Ruth Hill gives me a Moirs chocolate out of the glass case. She talks to me: ‘How is she [Bishop’s mother]? We’ve always been friends. We played together from the time we were babies. We sat together in school. Right from primer class on. After she went away, she always wrote to me — even after she got sic the first time’.” (The Collected Prose 265–66)

Even though she was well over a decade away from Nova Scotia, Bishop not only stayed in touch with her family, but even her mother’s closest friend.

Bishop quickly noted, “I have another poem about to appear in the New Yorker”: “Song for the Rainy Season.” “It’s about the house here where I live — I think you’ll like it.” Admonishing her aunt to “take care of yourself,” she closed as always, “With much love.”

Only a few weeks passed before Bishop wrote another even longer letter to her aunt. The next post takes up her October news.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 67: Paraty

Bishop’s letter of 23 September 1960 really got underway after she had dispatched all the updates. The next subject warranted a long paragraph: “We went to explore a place we’d heard about, called Paratí.”(or Paraty). It appears Lota had never gone there herself prior to this visit. In her inimitable way of engaging place/geography, Bishop offered Grace a description and account that prefigures her late poem “Santarém.”

She explained to her aunt that it was “a small port that hasn’t changed a bit for about 200 years.” This continuity appealed to Bishop, though one wonders if Lota, ever the modernist, enjoyed it as much as Elizabeth. While she knew change was inevitable, for Bishop, virtue inhered in tradition and the past.
Paraty (as Wikipedia prefers), Bishop wrote, “is right on the end of a long bay — in fact at high tide the water comes right up the ends of the streets; and at very high tide, in May, they put planks across the streets from sidewalk to sidewalk.” (I wonder if that is happening this month! One can’t help but wonder what affect is sea level rise having?)

Bishop recounted that “a friend of ours went there in May and went out for a walk at night, carrying a candle … and crossing the planks.” Perhaps it was this romantic, adventurous story that prompted their visit.

At the time of Elizabeth and Lota’s visit, “they [the residents] had had electricity for exactly one month … and everyone was still very excited about it.” Bishop related that “at night there were circles of children under every lamp post, just like moths.” From what I see online, Paraty is now a very popular tourist destination, so the electricity stayed and expanded, probably exponentially. But in 1960, Bishop noted that “we were the only car in town, except for one broken down one, and a few trucks.” “Everyone comes and goes by ferry, twice a week,” Bishop reported. There was also a bus, “twice a week.” 

This place, almost out of time, was small enough so that “you can walk around” all of it in “ten minutes.” What impressed Bishop most was that “every single house is perfectly beautiful — but so run down and poor.”

Interestingly, Bishop noted that one could “buy a huge house, perfect 18th century —  three floors, beams two feet square, etc — for about $2,000 — huge garden and palm trees, too.” Does this sound familiar? Five years later, Bishop did buy an 18th century house in Ouro Prêto, when timing and circumstances were better; but perhaps here she was already on the look out. Or, perhaps, encountering this real estate possibility helped trigger the idea that would come to fruition in the middle of the decade. Millier notes that Bishop paid $3,000 for the house in Ouro Prêto (370), a city that eventually would be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Not only did Bishop see the value in buying a house, but she confessed to Grace, “I’d like to buy the whole town, just to preserve it.” Loving the ocean and shoreline so much, one might think Bishop might have acted on this urge, but she noted, “unfortunately, the bay is too shallow, no good swimming, and I’m afraid it would be hot, etc.” No place is perfect, after all, even in paradise.

Elizabeth and Lota stayed for a few days. “Our ‘hotel’ was something,” she observed, an “18th century mansion all divided up by wooden partitions.” This meant you could “hear everyone sneeze and snore — the travelling salesmen and us, that was.” Knowing Grace would find it both funny and charming, Bishop wrote that “the travelling salesmen strolled through the dining room in their pajamas and brushed their teeth, etc, at a sink in the corner.” For added effect, Bishop observed: “and the bathroom. Words fail me.”

Ever the take-command-kind-of-person, Bishop noted that “Lota put up a good fight, but we never managed to get it repaired.” The hotel’s “landlady — ‘dona Zezé’” eventually gave them “a bucket of water a few times a day and we’d flush it.” In spite of these plumbing and privacy inconveniences, Bishop declared, “But everyone was perfectly charming!”

Not forgetting the cuisine, Bishop observed that she “ate nothing but fish and bananas for three days” and that the fish was “excellent.” She was also smitten with the churches: “adorable.” The only downside, the thing that “ruined” the visit for them, was “the town’s one loud speaker — (elections are approaching here, too).” Even so, Bishop concluded that “it was worth the effort,” ending her typed account with a scribble in the margin, “a long long drive, over dirt roads,” a scribble looking perhaps something like the dirt roads on which they drove.

Paraty’s eighteenth century heritage and delights, its village atmosphere, clearly appealed to Bishop even at this stage, and perhaps helped seed her desire to find her own historic home. Curiously, she did so far inland, in land-locked Ouro Prêto. Millier notes that it was the “backwardness and inefficiency [of Ouro Prêto that] charmed her, the way Brazil had charmed her after her struggles with New York.” (370).

Bishop hadn’t finished all her local colour. More of it in the next post.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

EBSNS Annual General Meeting, 23 June 2018

Come join us for all the activities at this year's Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia AGM, on Saturday, 23 June 2018. (Click on poster to enlarge.)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 66: Hot weather and iced tea

Bishop wrote her next letter to Aunt Grace on 23 September 1960, about a month and a half after the August missive. The serious news of this letter gets going in the third paragraph, but before getting to it, Bishop worked through where she was in her back and forth with her aunt, and updated Grace on the usual things. This post will deal with these routine matters, at the beginning of the letter and will save her fascinating description of a trip she and Lota took for the next post.

Though not visible in the photocopy of this letter, Bishop once again apologized for “this awful paper.” Making do was a modus operandi that she had carried with her from the very place this letter was going, Great Village (the envelope once again has “Box 21” on it, so Grace was back at the farm). Better stationary had to wait until her “next trip” to Rio, where she could “lay in a supply.” Poor writing paper was accompanied by a dramatic shift in the weather, “It has suddenly grown HOT here … much too early,” Bishop noted, “so I hope it won’t last.” This sudden heat had sent them to “our little pool,” which they had just “cleaned up.” After their swim, Bishop reported, they “then drank iced matté [sic]” (she had to add the accent by hand).
She wondered if her aunt knew about this “South American tea — they drink an awful lot of it, particularly in Argentina.” Assuming that Grace would not be familiar with it, Bishop noted, in her inimitable way, “it doesn’t taste exactly like tea — a bit more like hay, I think — but one gets quite fond of it.”
Bishop wrote this letter at the house at Samambaia. The recent back and forth between there and Rio meant, Bishop confessed, that she couldn’t “seem to find your last letter here perhaps I left it in Rio.” Added to this toing and froing, Bishop and Lota had recently gone “away for a few days trip” (more about it in the next post), followed by more time in Rio. The travelling wasn’t finished, “I’ll have to go back once more next week.” The reason for this return was dental work, “I have to have a tooth pulled — I’ve been stalling for ages.” Indeed, it appeared Bishop was doing more than stalling, but seriously avoiding this necessity.

The final update concerned Elizabeth Naudin. Bishop reported that she had not managed to see her the last time they were in Rio, “I was too rushed.” But she was “going to call her up today.” They had connected before the little trip and Bishop could report that her cousin “seemed much happier, in the apartment — even if it’s only temporary.” Clearly, the Naudins were still rather unsettled and continued to resist acting on the repeated invitation from Bishop to visit Samambaia. “They haven’t been up here yet,” Bishop noted, that underline adding a bit of force to that tiny word. Bishop lists reasons: 1. “waiting until they get moved”; 2. “or have a car”; 3. “or have someone to leave the children with,” even though Bishop had “invited the children, too!” Her bafflement and, perhaps, frustration barely concealed. Their household was usually host to all manner of “infant guests,” who “play in the brook all day.

Bishop did say with some relief that “Suzanne was much more friendly, very talkative — I think she’s quite bright; and the little one is very funny.” Perhaps it really was that they had been seriously disrupted and required time to find their bearings. Bishop added that “Suzanne already has a little Brazilian boy to play with and is speaking a few words of Portuguese.”

South America would be an adjustment for any Canadian, used to a very different climate, and Bishop ended this round of updates with an observation that could have explained further the Naudins’ hesitancy to plunge into too much socializing: “I think poor E is going to hate this heat.”

Bishop and Lota often escaped the heat with travel and the next post will be her account of the “few days trip.”