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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 84: Babies

Bishop’s next letter to her aunt is dated 20 June 1961. It was in response to one from Grace dated 5 June. When I first read this letter (many years ago now), I perked up: Grace penned her letter on the day I was born. She wrote it because her first granddaughter, Miriam Sutherland, was born just three days before, on the 2nd. Grace knew Bishop was keen to hear about this advent, so didn’t waste any time sharing the news — even if the postal service was slow to transport it.

Bishop retrieved her aunt’s letter on 19 June, “on our way to Rio.” There had been another big gap since Grace’s last, at least of those that Bishop had received: “it seems to me that about one out of three letters gets lost.” But in all likelihood, Grace’s 5 June letter was the most recent to reach her niece.

Bishop turned immediately to the big news, remembering that “it was about time for Phyllis to have that baby.” She confessed that she “was beginning to worry” not hearing anything, so was relieved to learn “it is safely over and how nice to have a little girl” (Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland already had two boys). Bishop enclosed “a small present” for Phyllis “to get something for Miriam’s trousseau … or will they call her Christine?” She was, in then end, called Miriam. Bishop finally met Phyllis’s children in the early 1970s, but in the interim, she was eager to hear about them from both her aunt and her cousin. I met Phyllis and Miriam in 1991, long after Bishop had died, but “cousin Elizabeth” was still a vivid memory for both women.
In the midst of this busy time, Grace herself continued to have health issues, though just what is not clear from Bishop’s letter. All she wrote was how “glad” she was to hear that “you have had someone to help you wash and clean.”

So, 1961 was the year of new babies in Bishop’s life, far and near. Bishop next turned to the other baby, the one most immediately in their lives, the adopted daughter of their friend Mary Morse. Just before that update, Bishop reiterated that they had “to go to town before the bank closes to sell some dollars, etc.” As a result, the letter would be “hurried.” She thought she’d wait to mail this response “in Petrópolis … [where] the mails are quicker and safer.” Then she reported that “Mary Morse is going off to N.Y. by jet with her adopted baby this Sunday.” The trip to Rio would be equally hurried because they wanted “to get home early this week-end to see as much of her as possible before she goes.” This mother and baby planned to “be gone two to four months” and Bishop confessed that they would “miss ‘Monica’ dreadfully. I’ve never seen such a good healthy happy baby.”

This remarkable little person “really never cries and laughs at everything — even falling out of bed!” She had already begun to cut “two teeth — and can almost sit up but not quite.” Not only was her nature unfolding, but also her stature: they sensed she would “be very tiny …dark-eyed and Brazilian,” this appearance in marked contrast to “her adopted mother who is a very tall, bony, blonde Bostonian type!”

Bishop promised Grace “a couple of pictures … but I left them in the country — next time.” Bishop acknowledged that generally speaking “I like babies but I don’t think I ever liked one quite so much — she loves everyone.” She knew Grace would “love her” too, and noted that with Monica’s “dark eyes, she probably looks a little the way you looked as a baby — and is going to be very mischievous” (also rather like Grace, if the stories Bishop knew and wrote about her are to be believed). Monica was already pulling “the cats’ tails.”

As much as Elizabeth and Lota accepted the circumstances of this single mother, Bishop knew that “Mary’s family is going to be rather surprised at her daughter” with its “(father unknown).” Bishop always said that Brazilians were more open-minded than Americans, especially the uptight New Englanders of her own childhood and adolescence.

Bishop’s homage to Monica was by way of demonstrating to her aunt how interested she was in Phyllis’s new daughter, whom she hoped was “as good” as their new baby.

The final paragraph of this “hurried” missive provided a list of further updates and will comprise the next post.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 83 — Postcards

Over a month passed before the next communication from Bishop to Grace — at least the postcard that was sent on 6 March 1916 is the one that survives. It is not possible to know if Bishop had written in the interim (since the 30 January letter), but perhaps not because as the following postcard, dated 27 April (again, a significant gap), shows, the quiet life at Samambaia had given way to long stretches in busy Rio.

The March postcard was typed and was by way of acknowledging a “nice letter” from Grace. With very little room, Bishop offered a quick update, reporting that “Monica is a darling baby … so good and laughs all the time.” She declared that Mary was lucky to have such a child. Then she described the verso of the postcard: “the house where we stay in Ouro Preto.” This house belonged to their friend Lilli Correia de Araújo and was called Pouso Chico Rei. She noted that it “is run as a small hotel … room for 8 people.” Bishop wrote that she wanted the Naudins to “go there — in fact they must!” But even more than that, Bishop wanted Grace to visit her and see this historic city: “Oh dear — I wish you were coming here instead — or too, I shd. say!” hinting that the dynamics with her cousin remained fraught.
(The image on EB's postcard of Lilli's hotel)
Bishop urged her aunt “to find out about the boat fares and let’s see.” Bishop promised that she would look into “freighter fares” (a preferred way for Bishop to travel), but she recognized that such a mode of transportation might be an issue for her elderly aunt because “they are apt to take forever.” But, then, perhaps Grace wouldn’t mind “18-25 days at sea.” Bishop commiserated over airplanes “(I loathe flying, too, even if I do it once in a while.)” And acknowledged that ship travel was “more expensive than tourist-planes now.”
(Pouso Chico Rei still operates. I know a couple of people who have stayed there in recent years, and am told there is an EB room!)
The card was nearly full so Bishop quickly added the old news: “I got a grant a while ago” (the Chapelbrook Foundation Fellowship), which required her “to go travelling on it this year.” A little scribble on the front of the postcard was it for this brief missive.

If Bishop responded to Grace’s March letter, it does not survive. Her next note to Grace is another postcard, this one hand-written, dated 27 April. It was written in Rio, where Bishop said they now spent “3 or 4 days every week … because of Lota’s job.” Being more in Rio meant that she was able to see her cousin more: “I saw E and Suzanne yesterday,” perhaps to give a birthday present to the child who had turned five on 12 April. It appears Bishop had not heard recently from her aunt, but said that her cousin “said she’d heard from you — I hope that means you are lots better & up & about.” Bishop had clearly heard something of this most recent trouble, though just what was wrong with Grace is not stated.

The verso of this postcard showed a bird’s eye view of the Rio waterfront, expansive enough for Bishop to be able to show where she and Lota were in relation to the Naudins. Bishop marked north-south-east-west on the image and put an X where she lived and where the Naudins lived. Bishop was ever making maps!

Bishop still had not given up hope that Grace would visit, as she concluded this scribble message by saying, “If you came you could stay here if you wanted.” She signed off by saying that she hoped to “hear from you soon — Love, Elizabeth.”

The next communication from Bishop, dated 20 June 1961, is a full-blow letter, which will be the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Moya Pacey reads at Elizabeth Bishop House

Australian writer Moya Pacey gave a reading at the Elizabeth  Bishop House on Thursday evening 11 October.
(Moya at the dining room table in the EB House.
Photo by Maxine Ryan.)
In spite of cold, rainy weather, there was a good turnout for this intimate sharing from her two collections The Wardrobe and Black Tulips.
(Listening to the poet read. Photo by Maxine Ryan.)
It is such a wonderful thing to know that such events are once again happening in this dear old place. Thanks to Laurie Gunn and the St. James Church of Great Village Preservation Society for taking such good care of this important heritage site and making it available to artists and readers from across the globe.

I understand that there are only about eight spots available for the fall-winter booking season at the house. Check out the EB House facebook page to find out more.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 82: Diversions

The final paragraph of Bishop’s 30 January 1961 letter is not nearly as long and detailed as the previous one, but it contains a hint of a change in their lives that had far greater impact than the arrival of a baby. Before this reveal, Bishop returned to Grace’s letter and responded to a plan her aunt had mentioned: “I think you are wise not to go to Florida, under the circumstances” (none of which we know in detail, but all related to the stress and strain among Grace, Mabel and Hazel as they cared for and dealt with the illness and death of Eleanor Boomer Shore).

Bishop paused with a dash and then typed, “Don’t please think of my birthday!*” Bishop would turn 50 on 8 February and Grace had already thought about it. The asterisk pointed to a scribble at the bottom of the page where Bishop thanked her aunt “for the nice (& unusually sensible!) card —” As for Bishop, she asked Grace if she knew “how old I will be?” and declared, “I simply don’t believe it” and she had decided to “just ignore the whole thing. —//” That double back-slash seeming to end the matter for further discussion.

At this point, the other big change was introduced. Bishop reported that they were regularly “going to Rio because Lota has a wonderful new job — or is about to — very important, with the new government.” This job was to head up the development of a large section of waterfront in Rio: the construction of Parque do Flamengo. Carlos Lacerda, the new governor of the state of Guanabara and an old friend of Lota, recruited her for this major urban renewal project.
Bishop declared that she was “delighted” because it was “just the kind of thing she can do.” Nothing so ambitious is ever as simple, straight-forward or easy as it seems and Bishop noted that “being politics it’s all uncertain still.” The uncertainty soon resolved and before long Lota was totally immersed in the whirl and stress of this mega-project and they were spending much more time in Rio. In the end, this project took a huge toll on both women and on their relationship, but in these early days, the excitement and rightness of it dominated.
 (A view of the park completed.)
At that moment, Bishop told her aunt that she was “extra glad” for Lota “because it will take her mind off her troubles with the adopted son.” This family strife was, according to Bishop, caused by the son “who behaved rather like our relatives, only worse.” Bishop promised to “tell you the awful story” sometime. This trouble had “upset” Lota so much “because she was so devoted to those five ‘grandchildren’ — we both were, and are.” Strife in general and perhaps in this particular, Bishop suggested, came about because “most people cannot accept things, I guess — can’t bear to feel grateful,” but rather chose to be “spiteful.”

Shaking off this upsetting subject, Bishop assured her aunt that for them, these new diversions were balm: “there is ‘Monica,’ and this job,” and she herself was actually working, “trying to get two books done in 1961.”

Even with her own relatives’ bad behaviour, Bishop closed with “Give my love to everyone” (one puts up with a lot in family) and urged her beloved aunt to “keep well and write soon.”

The next correspondence from Bishop were in the form of two postcards, one in March and one in April. They will comprise the next post.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 81: A Sensitive Matter

The next subject Bishop broached in her 30 January 1961 letter is a sensitive matter, brought up to give Grace the context for why it would prove difficult to have the Naudins visit Samambaia in the near future (after all Bishop’s talk about wanting to host them there). Bishop could have explained the situation briefly and left it at that, but she decided to give her aunt the details, some of which I will not include in this post.

Before launching into the story, Bishop wrote, “we wish you were here visiting us now.” One of the main reasons for this wish was because “there is a baby in the house again.” Their “proper Bostonian friend, Mary Morse, went and adopted one [a baby, that is].” Mary was the person Bishop has supplanted in Lota’s heart, yet Morse lived nearby all along and had been building a house “down below us.” This house was just “being finished,” though it would not “be ready [yet] for another month, at least.” As a result, Mary and the new baby were “living with us.” Whatever the complex relationship was among these three women, proximity remained.

The long paragraph that followed this set up is a detailed account of how 47-year-old Morse, “after talking about it for years,” finally decided to adopt a child, something she had “been negotiating … for ages.” Bishop explained to Grace that “the laws are like those in the US — you can’t adopt legally until you’re over 50, unless you are married, and Mary is an old maid.”

The Brazilian feature film about Lota, Elizabeth and Mary (“Flores Rares/Reaching for the Moon”) offers an interpretation of the process of this adoption. Some of it fits with Bishop’s account in this letter, some of it does not. Since this child, who was named “Mary Stearns Morse,” is still living (indeed, my age), I am uncomfortable about including Bishop’s account of her origins. Bishop told Grace that because of Mary’s age (under the legal limit), “this baby was located through various intermediaries and no one knew any one else’s name, etc.”

This film shows Lota (and Elizabeth, if I remember correctly — it is some years since I saw the film) making the trip to pick up the baby directly from the mother (who is portrayed quite  differently from the person Bishop describes). Bishop wrote that they did go “down to Rio to see her for Mary, because we knew that even if the baby had four eyes Mary wouldn’t be able to resist her.” But she noted that “a friend of ours” had already picked up the baby and had her “checked out by one doctor.” When Lota and Elizabeth took possession of her, they “took her to our doctor, for a final check up.” All was well. Bishop declared her to be “a darling baby” between two and three months old. Her direct description of this infant is curiously expansive: “not pretty, but cunning; very bright, healthy, fat, and smiling, poor little thing.” Their doctor declared: “She has the best things of all — good temper,” because she hadn’t fussed when she was “prodded and poked” during the examination; rather: “she laughed.”

Lota and Elizabeth “drove her back to Mary, in the pouring rain, and announced ‘Here’s Monica’.”
(Mary Morse and Monica, 1961)
The next part gives an account of the baby’s mother and the unfortunate circumstances that required her to “give away” such a “darling.” Their Rio friend (the intermediary) “saw the mother (we didn’t want to) and said she was absolutely broken hearted about giving her up.” Bishop said it was obvious the infant “has been loved and well taken care of.” One can only feel sad for this mother.

Bishop knew Grace would understand the sad circumstances (akin to some of the situations she undoubtedly saw during her long nursing career delivering babies) and would be interested in the nature and well being of this little adoptee. Bishop reported that Monica “has been no trouble at all — sleeps like an angel, eats like a horse, wakes up laughing, and only cries when she’s wet or hungry.” She noted that this little person “act[ed] unhappy and frightened for about ten minutes every day at six — isn’t it strange?” Bishop had her own speculation as to why, based on the mother’s circumstances.

Finally, she declared Monica to be “a lucky child” because “Mary will adore her and she will be moderately rich, and get a good education, etc.”

I have omitted many of the more intimate details of this account, but clearly Bishop wanted Grace to know about this important development in their lives. She also told this story to her aunt because it explained why it would be hard to have all the Naudins visit: “Mary is in one of the two guest rooms and uses the extra bathroom for her and all the baby things.” Having more company right then would have been too much.

The next post will bring this heady letter to a close and hint at another, even bigger development unfolding in their lives in the first days of 1961.

Thursday, October 4, 2018