"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.

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