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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 80: More family talk

After its long opening paragraph, packed with thoughts about “fats,” “Natural Childbirth,” and “atom-splitting,” Bishop likely paused a moment before beginning the next, much briefer paragraph in her 30 January 1961 letter. This paragraph was clearly in response to things Grace had written about the long vigil with Eleanor Boomer Shore, held with Aunt Mabel (Eleanor’s mother) and Hazel Boomer Snow (Eleanor’s sister). Every family has issues, tensions and problems, and when illness and death happen, family dynamics can intensify (for better or worse). Grace was an eminently practical, capable and experienced nurse, a no-nonsense person with a keen sense of humour. She was unflappable, which was one of the reasons why Bishop loved and respected her. Whatever Grace had written about the tense and sad circumstances during this vigil,  Bishop’s response reveals that even unflappable Grace might have reached her limit.

The paragraph began with a sentence ripe with incredulity: “How CAN M[abel] and H[azel] be so stupid!” Bishop was “reading that page of your letter.” Whatever prompted Grace’s account, it appears to have had something to do with what happened to Ellie. Bishop continued: “These people who have to blame anything and everything on someone else.” Bishop immediately tempered this outburst by conceding that “poor old Aunt M, I suppose, really never did have much of a chance did she.” Bishop acknowledged that Mabel had “started out with a grudge against life (and had a right to, then) and never got over it.” Hints of the circumstances that might have engendered such feelings in Mabel can be found in Bishop’s memoir about Arthur Boomer and his family, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” Bishop concluded, “It takes a much bigger person than she is to overcome such handicaps.”

“Poor old Aunt M” sounds rather like poor old Aunt F, with frustrations and cares that weighed them down and from which they could not rise above. I suspect most of us know someone similar. These qualities and states of being did not mean Bishop severed contact with these relatives, found on both sides of her family; quite the opposite, she continued to connect with them directly (in person and in correspondence) right to the end of her and their lives. Over time, Bishop achieved perspective and gained some compassion for these problematic relatives, perhaps because she lived at a distance from them for most of her life. This distance was both a protection against being too affected, but it also allowed her to see them more as themselves rather than as simply agents in her own troubles. Bishop herself tried not to “blame anything and everything on someone else” for her own issues, even if some might argue convincingly that she had reason to. Bishop knew she, too, had “handicaps” to “overcome.”

After this commentary with its forbearing yet ironic conclusions, Bishop must have paused again, then markedly shifted gears. One of the subjects discussed for some time between her and Grace was maple syrup. Grace must have made some recommendation in her letter about how to store it (remember, Bishop pleaded with her aunt for some advice). Bishop responded to that advice by saying that she had “sterilized all” the remaining syrup, “just in time, I think — and sealed up about 2/3rds of it to keep in the refrigerator.” She felt that her actions meant all was “fine” with this treasured commodity. She noted that “for lunch today we are having watercress soup … and then fried mash with maple syrup.” Bishop observed that the watercress was doing well because “it has been raining so damned long.” She also clarified that the mash was “more or less a Brazilian dish … called angu” on which was used “ordinary syrup, or cinnamon and sugar.” They were getting a good run out of the maple syrup because of Bishop’s frugality and careful attention to its storage.

After this report, Bishop turned again to another perennial subject, her efforts to connect with Elizabeth Naudin. Bishop noted that she had been in Rio for three days “last week but I didn’t get to see E.” They were “going down tomorrow” and Bishop was hopeful that she would “see her this week.” She told Grace that her cousin had been sans “maid last time I saw her and pretty confined.” (Elizabeth Naudin was likely pregnant at this time; their third child was born in Brazil.) In spite of all the frustrations from the previous year, Bishop kept trying to connect and told her aunt, “I want to take her out sight-seeing as soon as she has someone to leave the children with.” She had learned that the Naudins had again gone to “Terezopolis [sic] to visit” Ray’s sister, which she imagined “they really like … much better than coming here,” but she still wanted “to have her up here for a week if possible when the heat gets too much for her.” Samambaia was “always pretty cool,” unlike Rio where it could feel like “hell … at this time.” The desire and intention were still active in Bishop to keep connected to her cousin, but as this paragraph came to a close, Bishop observed, “but now I’m not sure that I’ll be able to have her after all,” concluding with an “I’ll explain —” This dash was another pause before a launch into another long and even denser paragraph of explanation, part of which will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A couple of interesting links

Geographer Bob Maher continues to write interesting posts on his blog: The Ernest Blair Experiment. I have subscribed to this blog and just now received the most recent post. Bob is interested in Nova Scotia writer Ernest Buckler and is a member of the literary society formed some years ago to present events and activities about Buckler and, more generally, local and NS writers. Click here to see Bob's most recent post, which also mentions Elizabeth Bishop. We have been having an interesting exchange about Bishop. Bob wondered if Bishop was aware of Buckler and his work (the were almost exact contemporaries and they do share initials!). As far as I knew, Bishop was not aware of Buckler, but I asked Canadian literary critic and scholar David Staines, who knew Bishop at Harvard in the 1970s. Although he is a Buckler fan, he couldn't remember them talking about him during their conversations all those decades ago. Too bad.

Recently, writer Gabrielle Bellot wrote a lengthy piece about Bishop for The New York Review of Books, focused on an early prose piece Bishop wrote, "On Being Alone." Click here to read Bellot's thoughtful essay about the nature of solitude and loneliness.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 79: A new year commences

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was dated 30 January 1961, the year already well underway. I am particularly interested in this year because it is when I was born — as was Miriam Sutherland, the youngest child of Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland. Indeed, Miriam was born just two days before me in early June. Miriam’s advent was of keen interest to Bishop, as this letter reveals.

Bishop also turned 50 in this year (indeed, her birthday was just a week after this letter was written), a milestone for anyone and she had her views about it. So, Bishop was herself particularly interested in births and birthdays in 1961.
(Me and Miriam Sutherland, mid-1990s.
Miriam is wearing her favourite Rita MacNeil top.
We are looking at the photos that comprise part of
the Bulmer family fonds at Acadia University Archives.)

As this first, long letter of the new year to her aunt shows, there was a good deal happening in Bishop’s life — significant events and changes that advanced in positive and negative ways through the decade to come. Some of these events and changes are hinted at in this letter and will emerge in the next few posts.

This letter began with the usual acknowledgment of an epistle received from Grace, dated 13 January (so, there was some delay in Bishop’s response). Bishop offered the assessment that “we lose about every other one,” (letter, that is), a frustrating unreliability. Bishop asked “if Phyllis got one to Aunt Mabel to forward for me.” — Phyllis, being more stationary than the two older women, acted as a forwarding service.

The gaps in/losses of letters meant that Bishop “didn’t realize you’d been in Boston three whole months,” but being up in the mountains and occupied with their own busy life also meant she lost “track of time here terribly.” Bishop again acknowledged the “tough stretch, all right” that Grace had been through, not only supporting Eleanor Boomer Shore in her illness and death, but also her sister-in-law Mabel (Eleanor’s mother), who was also clearly on site for this trouble. The difficult time involved, in Grace’s words and Bishop’s echo, “Yes, just plain tension (and Aunt M is great at producing that).”

Grace must have reported the affect of all this tension because Bishop acknowledged how it “can give one High B[lood] P[ressure], I understand.” Grace had also contracted a “sore throat” and must have been dealing with a diagnosis of high cholesterol because Bishop, ever interested in following all things medical, noted the “great deal of excitement now about different kinds of fats — milk, butter, and animal fats, etc.” In Brazil, she noted, they “hardly get any [of these fats] here,” but acknowledged Grace’s temptations with “such good milk and cream and butter.” Her advice: “Watch out!”

Finally, in response to Grace’s heath report, Bishop urged her aunt to “please please keep well!”

The big news from Grace, however, concerned Phyllis, who was well into her pregnancy (as was my own mother) in January 1961. Bishop yearned again for “some snapshots of the little boys,” that is, Phyllis’s sons Wallace and David. Obstetrics nurse Grace reported in her letter, clearly for a second time, that Phyllis needed to have a Caesarian to deliver this third baby. Bishop remarked, “how stupid of me, I should have remembered.” Bishop noted that she was “all set to send her a wonderful book about ‘Natural Childbirth’! — glad I didn’t.” Bishop suspected Grace might “know about” this book and remarked that “a friend in Rio has just had her third that way, in three years of marriage, and apparently can’t wait to go right on — never feels a thing, she says.” Bishop then told her aunt  that she and Lota “went to see a good French movie on the subject, too — a marvellous movie, really.”

It is rather curious that these two middle-aged women, who never had children of their own, should have been so interested in childbirth. Bishop went on to explain her position: “I think it is much more important than the atom-splitting and wish they’d leave the poor old atom alone and concentrate on helping all these millions of women who have gone through unnecessary hell for thousands of year….” Bishop wasn’t done with advocating for “natural childbirth” with her aunt, who had probably delivered hundreds of babies in her long career. Bishop averred that “it [natural childbirth] is NOT a fad, you know” and explained how she had “many friends with whom it worked perfectly.” Why Bishop would have thought her aunt didn’t understand this particular birthing process is curious. She urged Grace “to see it demonstrated or attend one of the classes they give now” because she was quite sure her aunt would “find it fascinating — and very cheering-up, too!”

All the above subjects, thoughts, reports were contained in the dense, opening paragraph of this letter. In the long-ish gap since her last letter to Grace, Bishop had been storing up a great deal to write, and her aunt’s letter triggered a small flood of thoughts. Before getting into her own news, Bishop continued to address more family matters after this initial outpouring. They will be the subject of the next post.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 78: 1960 winds down

Bishop’s last letter of 1960 to her aunt was soon done and ready to mail. The final matters were a mélange of quick updates and observations, indicative of her haste and a desire to get her words and a gift to Grace before the holidays.

Bishop reported that she had seen Elizabeth Naudin “a week before” they had gone to Cabo Frio (but since that was just after her 30 October letter, it was old news — though not to Grace). Bishop had gone to Rio for a couple of days and had made contact in person because “she has no phone now” and “Ray was away for three weeks.” She supposed he was “back about now.” She was planning to “call him at Otis,”* but was stymied because “our telephone was struck by lightning — again — Saturday!” After it was repaired, she would try to reach him. She noted that “we have been having terrible and spectacular storms.”**
Once again she brought up the maple syrup, which she called “marvellous,” and confirmed she “used currents twice.” She was concerned about the syrup, “afraid of its spoiling” because “it is damp here.” She asked Grace how to store it: “bottling all I could very tightly, and perhaps keeping it in the refrigerator?” She told her aunt that at one point “it did pop a bit when I opened it, and I was afraid it had fermented, but it hadn’t.” She had decided to keep “the cover off — in my driest cupboard.” Not at all sure her strategy was right and not wanting to lose any of the treasure, she pleaded, “please tell me what you do.”

Since “‘Leontina’ our ugly maid, poor thing, has come to call me to lunch,” Bishop hastily concluded “with much love” and hoped she would “find a letter from you at the P.O.”

This brief epistle didn’t get in its envelope until after lunch because at the bottom of the page yet more nearly indecipherable scribble apologizing for a stain on the page: “I turned the page over to go down to lunch & I see I have put it in a puddle — of Coca Cola, I think!” Perhaps this “mess” happened because the maid had been “giggling over my shoulder watching me type —!” as she was summoned to lunch.

Thus ended 1960, with a stain on the page, a rather Bishopesque turn: an “untidy activity.”

The next post will commence 1961.

*Note: Ray Naudin worked for the Otis Elevator Company his whole career. Otis was founded by Elisha Graves Otis in the 1850s. It still operates.
(The founder in question.)
**Note: Bishop saw many spectacular lightning storms in Brazil. She even was indirectly hit by lightning once. Lightning images can be found in her poems and stories.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 77: Coming and going

The year 1960 was winding down. Bishop’s last letter to Grace was dated “December 6th,” just over a month after the last one. She had clearly not heard from her aunt. Scribbled across the top of the page was the query: “Did you get my letter? — the one with the check? — mailed Oct. 30th.”

After “Dear Aunt Grace,” she launched right in with a slightly bemused, exasperated “I keep losing track of you…” The last letter Bishop had from Grace had held the news “about Ellie’s being sick, and in the hospital.” Bishop had not known where to send her October reply because Grace’s plans had been “rather unsettled.”

Bishop speculated that “something [from Grace] must have got lost since then.” This letter was prompted by a desire to know “how things are and where you are.” To ensure Grace got this letter, Bishop decided to send it “C/O Phyllis, since surely she’ll know [your]” whereabouts. Besides, “the mails in her part of the world are more reliable.” Wherever Grace was just then, Bishop hoped she was “all right.”

After this slightly concerned preliminary, Bishop reported that she and Lota had just gone to Cabo Frio again “and will be going back over Christmas, I think.”* Being away before their traditional holiday time was because of Lota, who, as Bishop observed, “is just getting so fed up with her problems here.” The list of issues was significant: “a big real-estate development”**; “two law-suits”; and problems with her “adopted son behaving like a perfect demon.” In addition, Lota was suffering from “horrible neuralgia in the back of the neck.” This condition was so debilitating that Bishop sometimes had “to pull her out of bed in the mornings.” Bishop laid the cause of this condition on “all just worry.” The trouble with her son meant “we haven’t even seen the children for months and that just breaks her heart.” In the midst of all these cares and concerns, Bishop felt Lota “just has to get away for a while.”

Cabo Frio was a balm for their troubled hearts and minds, but the getting away was to continue, even after the holiday. Bishop reported that on “January 2nd, — we are going to stay with a friend in Ouro Preto [sic] again.” This friend was Lilli Correia de Araújo. Bishop and Lota had first visited Ouro Prêto in 1953 and had gone back a number of times in the interim. Bishop had mentioned this place to Grace before but reminded her aunt that it was “a little colonial town in the interior, a long day’s drive from here.” Indeed, it was in the state of Minas Gerais, 300 miles from Rio.
(View of Ouro Prêto, 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
Since she and Lota would be “coming and going” a lot, and since Bishop was unsure where Grace would be during the holiday, she decided “to send this small Christmas gift now,” hoping it would “‘come in handy’ wherever you are.”

This short, somewhat hurried letter wound down with a few updates about matters from the 30 October letter. These will comprise the next post.

* Note: As it turned out, Bishop and Lota did not return to Cabo Frio that Christmas, but stayed in Rio (Millier 317)

** Note: It is uncertain what this development was. During this year’s Christmas holiday, Carlos Lacerda, a close friend of Lota and the new governor of the state of Guanabara, visited them and asked Lota to head up “the development of a large piece of fill on Guanabara Bay,” what became Parque do Flamengo. (Millier 317) Perhaps they had wind of this request earlier in the month and Lota was trying to decide if she would take it on. Or, the real-estate could have been the selling and developing of the land she owned at Samambaia, something mentioned in previous letters and something on-going for some time.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sorrowful Anniversary

In the darkest hours just before midnight on 2 September 1998, Swiss Air Flight 111 crashed off the south coast of Nova Scotia, killing everyone on board. This tragedy sent shock waves across the province and across the world. I was living in Halifax at the time and the next day, when the full scope of the sorrow became apparent, I walked to Point Pleasant Park, profoundly shaken by what had happened, just to stare out into the Atlantic and try to comprehend. The poem below emerged from my thoughts.

Already twenty years have passed, but its affects still haunt all those who lost loved ones and those from the area who went out immediately onto the water to search for survivors. While this event has nothing to do with Elizabeth Bishop, still, she and her family were directly affected by the horrific tragedy of the Halifax Explosion, which marked its centenary in December 2017. While Bishop’s mother, who was at the Nova Scotia Hospital when the explosion occurred, did not die; she was seriously destabilized and was never the same afterwards.* This post is just a small way to honour all victims of violent tragedy. The quotation of the title comes from Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The photograph was taken by my younger sister more or less on the same spot where the poem emerged.
“Out of the Ninth-Month Midnight”

In memoriam, Flight 111 (2 September 1998)

Late afternoon, wind off the land.
Mountainous clouds backlit by sun.
The water is quicksilver.
Systaltic ─ now and then, now and then.
The harbour is a heart, whole
and shattered, held together,
torn apart by its own pulse ─
the circle of sun, the season,
the millennium.
Suddenly, two quivers of light
as though far away has epitomized.
Plovers, a pair, semi-palmated,
winter-ready, rare
on this bit of beach at the Point.
My gaze caught on their bright white
airborne bellies;
I follow them to the shoreline.
They become stones.
Have they come to answer the question
I ask of the Atlantic?
They have come to rest in the midst
of their imperative ─
the space between them
is the moment between contractions
when eternity relaxes
and the chambers of the world
fill with silence.

With my binoculars I see their dark
brown eyes keeping watch,
the single dark breastbands,
the nearly all dark beaks.
So still, so alert
they are perfectly aware of survival’s
fragility. They simply know
the temperature of tomorrow.
It is me who holds us
inside a compass,
a dial; but there is no circumference
except what I need to cradle
my desperate longing.
Time is broken and mended
in every breath, and the ocean
ticks strangely in the blood....
Here, on a September littoral,
where late afternoon sun slants seaward,
with a warm wind blowing off the land,
on a long journey between now and then,
these two together pause
because life and death will not.

(Photo by Donna Barry)

*Note: Coincidentally, the first conference about Bishop held in Nova Scotia happened in September 1998 at Acadia University in Wolville. Its title was: Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place. Memory and place took on a new meaning for many people earlier that month with the tragedy of the Swiss Air crash.