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

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.

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