"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.

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