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

Friday, June 29, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 71: More cousin talk

Bishop turned next, from the account of Lota’s sister, house and the new beehive oven, to her own family in the 18 October 1960 letter, specifically to her cousin Elizabeth Naudin, who was then living in Brazil with her husband Ray and their young daughters. Bishop had been making overtures to Elizabeth for some time, but finding the reception “rather baffl[ing].” She had to confess to Grace that she didn’t “know quite what to think of her behaviour.” Bishop couldn’t decide of her cousin was “cold,” “indifferent,” “or maybe shy, or what.” She reported to her aunt that she’d “been to see her four times” and “taken presents.” During the most recent visit “she seemed really friendly at last and even said she’d like to have me ‘visit’ her for a ‘few days’, which I thought was nice and homey of her.”

The saying is, actions speak louder than words, and in spite of this warmer reception, the Naudins sort of vanished, again. Earlier on they had “left the hotel without leaving any address or number.” Bishop had to resort to contacting “Ray at his office (a hell of a job) and track her down.” After the most recent, friendlier visit, she told Grace, her cousin had “done the same thing again — they’ve moved.” Bishop’s frustration was evident when she wrote, “although I know which building (unless they didn’t take that apartment),” she still couldn’t really locate her without the apartment or a phone number.

Bishop persevered by the old route of trying to get hold of Ray, which she said she’d been doing “for three days.” After this statement an ellipsis “…” Silence, it seems.
(Elizabeth Naudin sent me photos of the George Hutchinson
paintings she inherited from her mother Mary Bulmer Ross.
This painting is entitled "Ferry Boat Inn, Walton, 1931.")
Bishop also reported that she had already “called her to talk to her a dozen times, probably,” but Elizabeth had “never telephoned once.” That is, she said she had called “the Rio apartment,” which was more or less the same thing, as Bishop noted to Grace, “where I never am!”

With exasperation, Bishop asked Grace, “Do you suppose she is shy — she doesn’t seem so, exactly — or what is it?” Grace likely had no better idea what the issue was, either, at that distance, so Bishop’s question was probably rhetorical. She wanted to keep giving her cousin the benefit of the doubt.

Bishop again confirmed that she and Lota had invited them to visit the house at Samambaia, “over and over again.” Extending the invitation to the children. But the visit had not yet happened. Bishop wondered aloud that at first she “thought maybe they thought that bus trip too hard — 1½ hours.” But she discovered that wasn’t the issue as she learned “they have gone by bus to visit his sister — a much longer trip.”
 (Another George Hutchinson painting owned
by Elizabeth Naudin: "Windmill," 1917.)
Pondering all these circumstances and permutations, Bishop typed out (you can perhaps feel the extra pressure on the keys): “Maybe it is very simple — she just doesn’t like me! — or I seem like an old lady to her, or something.” Having reached that vague conclusion, Bishop declared that she “honestly” couldn’t “see what more I can do. She acts as if the telephone didn’t exist.” But the conclusion didn’t end the matter. Bishop continued, “How does she think I’m going to find her, in a city the size of Rio?” Grace knew well enough from Bishop’s letters that her niece “almost never” went to the city, “particularly now that it is summer.” Shifting for the briefest moment out of this slightly obsessive natter, Bishop observed, in parentheses: “(There is a water-shortage and I hope for the children’s sake she isn’t in a part of town without water …).”

That broader observation instantly reverted to more fretting about what to do: “I’d love to have her come up here.” She extolled to her aunt the appeal of the house under the mountain: “the children could play in the brook etc.” Finally, Bishop conceded that she could not read the behaviour, “I can’t tell whether they really don’t want to or what it is — and now this vanishing again …”

Bishop had tried calling “at their old apartment” and was told “they’d left.” “‘Do you know their new number or address?’ [she had asked] ‘No, Senhora.’ And [the maid] hung up.”

Bishop repeated the word that started off the whole disquisition, “Well, I’m baffled, that’s all.” Because it was family, she said, “I’ll try once more.” Again, the benefit of the doubt kicked in as Bishop said with some incredulity, “She doesn’t seem to understand that I don’t live in Rio.” Visits there were always brief and focused on tasks, chores, errands: “the bank,” “my teeth,” “etc.” The hurry and brevity of Rio meant that “it is much more agreeable to see people up here and I’d like to show her around a bit, too. But no luck.” And Lota, ever the doting grandmother, “would like to see the children.”

I had read and transcribed Bishop’s letters to Grace by the time I met Elizabeth and Ray Naudin in the late 1990s. I knew the degree of frustration Bishop felt in her efforts to connect with this cousin and her family. Being a polite Nova Scotian, I never asked Elizabeth about her time in Brazil when she met her ‘just starting to be famous’ cousin for the first time. I will confess, however, I was dead curious. In the afterlife of Bishop, Elizabeth and Ray Naudin were not at all reluctant to declare their connection to their lauded relative. Perhaps they had forgotten about the fraught dynamics of their Brazilian sojourn. And likely Bishop never expressed her frustrations too loudly, if at all. One puts up with a lot where family is concerned.
 (A third Hutchinson painting owned by Elizabeth Naudin:
"Thames Ditton Church," 1932. These and other paintings were inherited
by Elizabeth and Ray's oldest daughter Suzanne.)
Bishop was an orphan in the strictest sense of that word with the early loss of her parents; but the extended family on both sides remained a constant through her entire life, even when she was in distant Brazil, even when the dynamics were fraught. The story of this connection continued as the letters unfolded, more effort, more bafflement. If Bishop had not cared about family, she could easily have gone silent. While the art might be the enduring manifestation of the artist, we all can identify with the “untidy activity” of daily life and family connections: “awful but cheerful”!

The next post will conclude a letter focused on familial bonds.

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