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

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.

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