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

Friday, August 31, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 76: Doing what you want to

Bishop concluded her 29 October 1960 letter to her aunt with a series of thoughts, questions and comments about family. Before doing so, she reassured Grace that all the “things staying in the Customs in the hot weather” survived the delay “in fine shape.” Grace must have expressed some concern because Bishop noted she had been “worried, too”; but all was well.

Grace had also told her niece that she had given up “making the mats and quilts,” something Bishop expressed regret to hear. Rug hooking and quilting were long-standing domestic activities for the women in Bishop’s maternal family, going back to her great-grandmother. Bishop herself owned some of their creations. The other needle art that was common among them, especially Bishop’s mother, was embroidery, which Bishop told Grace she had tried to start doing herself, “in my old age.” She reported that she worked on “two really beautiful Danish designs for two pillows — but very shortly I turned it over to Lota.” Needle and thread (or floss in this case) were not for Bishop, but Lota had “learned all about embroidery and such in the convent.” Instead, she returned to “painting pictures as relaxation,” an art and pastime Lota fostered by buying Bishop “oils — I’ve always used water colors before.” Painting pictures was also a common activity in Bishop’s maternal family. Perhaps telling her aunt of this decision nudged Grace in that direction. Grace herself took up painting in her late 70s and early 80s.
 (One of Bishop's paintings. A Nova Scotia scene.)
Grace’s letters undoubtedly were filled with reports and stories about family and relatives, news of which Bishop was always eager to hear. The most recent letter must have contained an update about Uncle George Shepherdson. It prompted Bishop to observe, perhaps with some sarcasm, that he “ought to be given some sort of award by the Masons for all that fidelity all these years.” One of his faithful duties was “stoking the wood furnace,” one assumes in the hall where they had meetings. Bishop observed that she “hate[e] to think of him” doing this task, “but, as you say — ‘no one can do anything with him’.” Bishop’s view was that “one just has to let people do what they want to do.”

Taking this view of things, Bishop felt that it helped her “get along better with poor old Aunt F[lorence] than the other cousins.” Conceding the fact that she only saw Florence “in very short stretches,” she could afford “to let her do what she wants … it doesn’t bother me if she wants to drink too much before dinner! Why not, at 85 … I think I’d just let her guzzle!” Could it be that this approach is one Bishop hoped others who saw her only in “short stretches” might take with her?
(One of Grace's paintings. Great Village. AUA.)
This long busy late October letter began to wind down and Bishop knew Grace was on the move again: “Please let me know your next move and address.” Grace was always tending to family and Bishop was “afraid it is a sad time for you,” because of Ellie Boomer Shore’s illness. Bishop asked her aunt to “give my love to Aunt Mabel [Ellie’s mother],” who she speculated must be “almost as old as Aunt F.”

Urging Grace to “write soon,” she concluded with a final “thank you and thank you for the lovely presents,” noting that she had “locked up the syrup. I hate to do that, but I found the cook licking her fingers suspiciously, in the kitchen.” She really was not prepared to share this treasured northern treat!

Just over a month passed before Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, on 6 December 1960, which will be the subject of the next post.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 75: Currants and chocolate

To shake off her preoccupation with the Naudins, Bishop quickly turned to the rest of the items Grace had sent. She had already waxed eloquently about the maple syrup in her 29 October 1960 letter (as well as in the previous one), so she picked up on the second item: currants, which “look wonderful — and so cheap in Montreal.” This latter comment confirms that Grace had been with her sister Mary (who lived in this city), when the items were assembled for the Naudins to transport (though by now, Grace was elsewhere, as the items had sat in customs, if you remember, for weeks).

Bishop was going to savour this treat, too; indeed, engaging in delayed gratification. She stored them in their “bags in a tight tin to keep to use at Christmas time.” The third item, however, was going to be indulged in immediately: “This afternoon I think I’ll make a chocolate cake.” After an ellipsis she went on to explain that the coming week held two holidays: “All Soul’s Day and Memorial Day” on “Tuesday and Wednesday,” which meant they were “bound to have unexpected or unannounced company,” because “most people are taking Monday off, too.” Bishop explained further that “All Soul’s is our Halloween — of course — All Hallows Evening.”

Though Grace had bought the currants in Montreal, Bishop noticed that they “came from Australia.” This multinational convergence prompted her to report that “last night it turned cold again suddenly,” which saw her “lighting a fire with a Canadian paper bag, with matches from Russia, in Brazil.”

Bishop included in this letter a ‘check which I think … should just about cover” the cost of the items, flouting what Grace undoubtedly wanted to be gifts: “although you deserve,” Bishop noted, “ten times as much … for all your trouble.”

Returning to that third item (chocolate), Bishop observed that chocolate “comes from Brazil and should be good, but it isn’t” (that is, the kind she could get in Brazil, not the kind Grace had sent). She qualified that “the powder kind is all right,:” but “the tablet kind just won’t melt.” And a baker needed to “use so much [chocolate] everything gets very dry.”

She went on to report that “raisins are fearfully expensive now.” Occasionally, they could get “Argentine raisins, but they have to be de-seeded — a hell of a job!” So, the currants were most welcome as she wrote, “I never saw a currant here.” She and Lota had tried (apparently unsuccessfully) “to smuggle in a bush or two.” They thought the weather on their mountain might be conducive for them to grow, but Bishop was doubtful “without frost.”

Even with the currants stored safely away for the next big holiday, Bishop did report that probably she would use some of them “to make a very good kind of stuffed pancake,” something done for “special company.” The stuffing contained an “egg, sugar, bread crumbs, currants, and cream cheese.” These ingredients were “all beaten up” and the pancakes were stuffed and baked. This delicacy was “lots of work, but for someone we like very much I make something fancy once in awhile.”
(These are strawberry stuffed with cream cheese
pancakes, but you get the idea.)
Having dispelled her frustrations by writing about one of her favourite subjects (food), Bishop concluded her letter by turning back to other family — the subject of the next post.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sable Island Institute and Herb Barry’s museum

In 1951 Elizabeth Bishop visited Sable Island, the place where her great-grandfather had been shipwrecked in the 1860s. She spent a couple of days there. In 2008, I had the great privilege of visiting Sable Island myself, thanks to Zoe Lucas. I travelled out there on a beautiful May day with Zoe and writer Janet Barkhouse. Zoe, a long-time resident of the island, and I connected because of Bishop’s long ago visit. Bishop had intended to write an article for The New Yorker about Sable Island, but it never happened. Brazil intervened.

Recently, Lucas and a group of passionate supporters and protectors of Sable Island established the Sable Island Institute. Even more recently, a wonderful new website for thisgroup went live.

(Part of Herb's museum. Photo by Brenda Barry.)
Between 2008 and today, Zoe shared some of Sable Island artefacts from her own collection with my elderly father, who has had a long-standing interest in the island and its famed horses. He created a nice display of this material and has been sharing it with visitors for some time. Last year, Janet Barkhouse visited my father’s little Sable Island museum and she wrote a delightful article which now appears on the institute’swebsite.
 (Zoe Lucas and Herb Barry, 2016. Photo by Brenda Barry.)
(The guest book. Photo by Brenda Barry.)

Friday, August 24, 2018

A couple of interesting blog posts

Recently, I received word about two blogs whose authors have recently visited Great Village. The first is American writer Miriam Sagen. She and her husband Richard Feldman (also a writer), visited Great Village and other parts of Nova Scotia in late June. Click here to see Miriam’s post about her encounter with the EB House.

(Miriam Sagen, from her blog.)

The next post is from a blog kept by Bob Maher, who I feel somehow I should know, as he seems to be situated in Annapolis County in the Annapolis Valley, where I now live. He visited Great Village earlier this week and visited St. James Church. Click here to see his informative post about what he discovered.

Thanks to both of these folks for making note of their time in the village.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

My but How Time Flies --

-- for it was seven years ago today that we were in the midst of EB100 festivities in Great Village, and CTV was interviewing Sandra Barry and Moya Pacey --

Monday, August 20, 2018

Film-maker Steven Allardi at the EB House

On Sunday, 19 August, American film-maker Steven Allardi visited the Elizabeth Bishop House to do get some film footage. Steven is a video producer with Poetry In America, a series of online courses about poetry, as well as a program of the same name for PBS. Steven was in touch last week to say that these courses cover many of Bishop’s poems, but they will be highlighting “At the Fishhouses” in the near future. Steven has his own Nova Scotia connection, having a summer place in the province.

Elizabeth Bishop House steward Laurie Gunn welcomed Steven who spent several hours at the house. We’ll be asking Steven to keep us informed about this project. Here are a couple of photos Laurie took of Steven in action.
(In the dining room.)
 (In the kitchen.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 74: Another perspective

As frustrated as Bishop was with the elusiveness of her cousin, she still could not let go of trying to connect with Elizabeth and Ray Naudin. After opening her 29 October 1960 letter to Grace with a response to her other cousin Ellie’s struggle with cancer, Bishop turned yet again to an update of the ongoing saga with the Naudins. She had told Grace that finally a date had been set for their visit to the house at Samambaia, but her acknowledgement of the maple syrup and other gifts hinted at the no-show she was about to explain.

This long awaited visit was to have happened “yesterday.” Bishop had arranged for “Mary Morse’s architect, a good friend of ours, a very nice chap named Ricardo,”* to drive the Naudins up, which helped also with the transportation of the gifts, “convenient” for them. After the tell-tale ellipsis, Bishop wrote, “Well, it seemed they had colds, or E had had a cold and the children had colds, so she didn’t want to bring them or leave them.” Once again the visit was “postponed … until next Saturday.”

Grace herself had heard from Elizabeth Naudin, either directly or via Mary, because immediately after this announcement Bishop declared (you can hear the exasperated tone): “I am glad you say she is having a wonderful time here — and I gather she is”; but Bishop was clearly put out by the delays and excuses. Who wouldn’t be?

Bishop knew about her cousin’s luck “with servants” and the “wonderful big apartment right overlooking the ocean, etc.” They had had enough communication for “E” to tell her cousin that “she never went near the kitchen, just let the cook put it on the table!” Bishop hazarded the guess that her cousin “has never lived in such luxury.” Even in the midst of the “fearfull [sic]” heat in Rio and the dire water shortage, the Naudins seemed unscathed, “she has been lucky about that, too, I think — they never were without water.” Unlike Lota’s lawyer who “had to come up to their summer place here with his twelve children, not a drop of water, in a heat of 100% in Rio.” All Bishop could think about in this was “all the dirty clothes piling up and up” with that many kids, some of them “tiny.”

In the midst of this account, to give Grace some context for her mystification, you can here the unspoken thought: If she’s having such a good time of it, why can’t she make the effort to visit me?”
(Bishop at Casa Mariana -- not the right time,
but it conveys the idea of waiting.)
As if to shake off this train of thought, Bishop returned to Ricardo, who had arrived solo “with the syrup and the currents and chocolate” (a complete list of the gifts). In contrast to others, this friend is “awfully nice, sociable.” He told them he felt obliged to pay a visit to the Naudins “when he went to pick the things up.” Bishop reported that Ricardo “liked Ray very much” and offered the observation that Ray “is awfully likable.” Then a critique, which Bishop gingerly added: “but after hemming and hawing a bit he said he found E ‘cold’ — which is just my own impression, too — (Don’t repeat this to Mary!)”

Bishop quickly added that “after you talk to her for an hour or so, she does warm up a little — but it is hard going.” Bishop had wondered in previous letters if her cousin was “shy,” but now that someone disinterested had met her and noticed the marked reserve, Bishop (who was herself quite shy and reserved) ventured, “she just doesn’t seem a bit  interested in other people, and not very much in things — outside her own immediate affairs.” Being an almost obsessively curious person, this seeming lack of interest puzzled Bishop.

To see some images of Elizabeth Naudin and her family, click these links:

Finally, Ricardo’s assessment provided Bishop with some relief because she “had thought perhaps it was all my fault.” That someone “so friendly and easy” would feel similarly helped Bishop let go of her obsession to connect: “I’m not going to worry about it — and God knows I’ve tried!” adding in her scrawl, “to be friendly.” Ah, family.

What follows this update is further response to those gifts, which clearly did as much to mitigate Bishop’s bewilderment as Ricardo’s assessment of the situation. That will comprise the next post.


*Note: I did a little searching on the internet but could not find out who Ricardo is. I found a contemporary Brazilian architect named Ricardo Canton, but not the historical one. If anyone can tell me who he is, I’d be most grateful.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Tickets Now Available

Tickets are now available for the Wunderdog Theatre production of Sarah Ruhl's play Dear Elizabeth, which is being performed during the Vancouver Fringe Festival, September 6-16, 2018.  Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Upcoming events in Great Village: Suzie LeBlanc and Elizabeth Bodien

Two exciting events will be taking place in Great Village on 16 and 17 August. First, EBSNS Honorary Patron Suzie LeBlanc will be performing at St. James Church on Thursday evening, 16 August, at 7:30 p.m., part of the Musique Royale summer concert series. Tickets available online or at the door. 
 (Suzie LeBlanc and Elinor Frey)
Then on Friday afternoon, 17 August, at 2:00 p.m., also at St. James Church, American writer Elizabeth Bodien (who will be in residence at the Elizabeth Bishop House) will give a reading from her most recent collection. Free admission.
All are welcome to come and enjoy exciting performances by these exceptional artists. Happy Summer!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 73: Mixed up life

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt was written on 29 October 1960. If it has a theme, perhaps “mixed up life” might best suit. She reported to Grace that when she went to post her last letter (18 October), “I found one from you there — and scribbled so on the back of mine.” That letter told Bishop that Grace was once again on the move. Bishop mailed her own previous letter “to G.V. and I hope you got it — you had probably just left.” It was still a time when mail was routinely forwarded, so Bishop trusted that someone at the farm in the village would do so.

Before Bishop could respond to the one she’d received on 18 October, she got another letter from her aunt: “your letter of 22nd — day before yesterday — it came in four days this time — from Weymouth.” Grace was not travelling for pleasure, but to see Eleanor Boomer Snow, Arthur and Mabel’s eldest daughter, who was seriously ill, dying of cancer. It was this news that Grace conveyed in the second letter.
“I am very sorry to hear about poor  Ellie — how awful.” Clearly, Grace had indicated how dire the situation was: “hopeless.” Sadly, the details are lost, but they were such to prompt Bishop to respond, “she is so small and weak to have kept going all this time with all that dreadful involvement.”
Bishop was also concerned about Grace: “I am afraid you are having a pretty grim time of it.” She was glad to hear that Hazel (Ellie’s sister) “can be with her” and earnestly asked her aunt to “let me know how things turn out.”

In between receiving the second letter (“day before yesterday,” that is 27 October) and writing her own on the 29th, they had finally received all the packages the Naudins had brought, the gifts from Grace — though they had not received them directly from the Naudins. Bishop explained the continuing saga of her cousin’s elusiveness later in this letter, but the convergence of Grace’s epistle with its sad news and the receipt of the gifts, especially the maple syrup, triggered an intense response, which Bishop recounted to Grace.

After reminding Grace to let her know “your next address,” she paused “…” and then wrote: “I dreamed about Ellie off and on last night.” The news and the maple syrup prompted Bishop to then declare: “Life is so mixed up — good and bad, comic and tragic.”

She suspected that “the reason why I dreamed was because I ate so many pancakes with MAPLE SYRUP on them rather late last night.” Then another ellipsis and a gush: “It is divine.” For Bishop this gift brought a rush of memory and nostalgia. For Lota, who also delighted in this gift, it was, as Bishop quoted her, a “taste of those northern woods.”

The vivid memory Bishop chose to recount was from the winter of 1917: “I remember the time I was little (about six), and in bed with bronchitis, and Pa put the dishpan filled with snow on the bed  and poured boiled maple syrup over it to make taffy.” Another ellipsis. You can sense Bishop actively remembering and savouring. She acknowledged the “awful lot of trouble” her aunt had to get the syrup to them, but assured her that they thoroughly “enjoy[ed] these simple but rare pleasures!”

It was not the first time Grace had begifted this northern delicacy, but Bishop declared “this time we are going to keep it all for ourselves, selfishly.” She reported that “last time we treated various friends,” but their reluctance this time was because they felt their largesse was not “properly appreciated.” This time, it was just for “Lota and I and our friend Mary Morse (who’s with us until her new house is ready to move into).”

Bishop declared that this time they were “going to eat it all” and reported that their first go came after “a very light dinner on purpose — just onion soup, first, followed by a huge batch of pancakes and syrup.” Not surprisingly, after such a long wait and anticipation, Bishop overdid it and ended up with “nightmares” about Ellie.

After this detailed introduction, Bishop turned from cousin Ellie and maple syrup back to cousin Elizabeth. That saga will be updated in the next post.