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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 87: Aunts and Cousins

The next subject of Bishop’s 26 July 1961 letter was a series of ponderings about family. The pending trip to NYC to work on the book about Brazil had brought up the hoped for possibility of getting to Nova Scotia to see Grace. The other aunt that came in for consideration was cranky Aunt Florence, about whom Bishop had been hearing from her paternal cousins: “Nancy wrote of moving her [Florence],” because “the place she was at changed hands and got worse, it seems.” Or so her cousin reported. Bishop dryly observed that her cousins “seem to love to write me all the morbid details.”  Bishop confessed to Grace, “I don’t trust any of my [paternal] cousins very far, I’m afraid,” a situation which she observed was “awful.” She was puzzled and frustrated about their persistent reporting, telling Grace what her aunt undoubtedly already knew: “She’s much more their aunt than she’s ever been mine, God knows.” And being so far away, “what on earth can I do about it, here?” But Bishop was a curious person and she still had ties to this difficult old lady, so after the question (you can feel the exasperation in it), the next sentence began: “However.” Bishop couldn’t really help herself, perhaps: “if I get to N Y I am going to go and investigate at least.” (Maybe like a traffic accident when one can’t look away, even though one wants to.) Bishop continued, “She sounds in very bad shape and I do wish she would just die peacefully in her sleep now.” Florence didn’t fulfill this wish until 1963.

After dispatching Aunt Florence, Bishop turned to her maternal cousin Elizabeth Naudin, who was much closer in space-time, though perhaps not much closer in affection, even as Bishop kept trying. Bishop told Grace that she had recently “seen Elizabeth once or twice,” even declaring that “she was here last week one hectic day,” that is, at Lota’s apartment in Rio, clearly not a convenient day because “we had two carpenters here (just like Laurel & Hardy)” — one can imagine that set up!. In addition, there were “people coming and going and the phone never stop[ped] ringing for Lota all day long.”

Elizabeth Naudin must have brought her children because Bishop observed, “E’s little girls are really very cunning.” Quite a strong and strange word to describe young ones. She reported that “they were going to dinner with the in-laws that day and were all dressed up,” though it is unclear why that would be “cunning.” The oldest, Suzanne, came in for another word from Bishop, “clever, all right.” On the day of the visit to the apartment that was “a mess — no doubt about it,” as Elizabeth and her girls were leaving, Suzanne “thanked me politely for a book I’d given her and then said ‘Good-bye — good-bye to you and your funny apartment…’ — looking very malicious.” Perhaps Bishop was too disposed to seeing something negative in the context of her continuing frustrations in her relations with her cousin. In any case, Bishop told her aunt that because it was “a month’s school vacation,” Elizabeth had “gone to spend ten days up in Teresopolis with the children — they have the in-laws’ house up there.” She also reported that the Naudins “have a car — a Brazilian-made one, but the biggest … and she drives — I do admire her courage!” (Having myself witnessed driving in Brazil in 1999, both in the country and the city, I too admire Elizabeth Naudin’s courage!).
 (Elizabeth Naudin at the in-laws in Teresopolis, 1962, AUA.)
After this update, Bishop reported on something Grace would have known about: “I think Mary [Bulmer Ross, Elizabeth Naudin’s mother, Grace’s sister] is now coming in October.” This mention of a visit is the first in the extant letters, but clearly it was a plan Bishop had heard about already from her cousin. The timing of her aunt’s visit meant, “I’m afraid I may miss her completely,” because of the planned trip to NYC for the Brazil book. “Maybe,” Bishop hoped, “we’ll overlap for a few days.” In the end, she did see her aunt, an encounter Bishop reported to Grace later in the year.

Without even a breath, the next paragraph began: “I envy you going fishing.” Clearly, the operation had not slowed Grace down for too long. Bishop then asked about one of Grace’s step-grandchildren: “is Freddie still involved with the same man?” I met Freddie Bowers through Phyllis Sutherland — Phyllis’s step-niece. They were very close. Freddie was a troubled person, however, and committed suicide in the late 1990s.

Bishop then averred, “I did write to Aunt Mabel a long time ago.” Perhaps she had been complaining to Grace that she hadn’t heard from Elizabeth. She had sent the letter to Florida. Perhaps it had got lost, so she said she would “try to get off a note this week to G.V.,” more problematic a task since “I can’t stop working at all now — I have to have 100 pages in in August — and for me that’s an awful lot.” The Brazil book involved not only the demand to write, but Bishop was also “run[ning] around to libraries, etc. looking things up.” Finally, this task meant she had to “type and type and type.”

Lota’s job was also keeping them in Rio for long stretches, and that meant “Our ‘couple’ are up there all alone with the cats,” meaning at the house in Samambaia, and Bishop reported that “they’re all getting lonely.” Elizabeth and Lota were able to return mostly only on the weekends, and “the cats won’t leave us alone …. I slept with all three last time.”

Bishop’s letter was starting to wind down: “I guess that’s all my news.” She had to head off to do errands: “sell some $$$$ — buy a pair of shoes — and a lot more typing paper.” As her thoughts trailed off, she noted that “‘winter’ seems to be over — it’s hot again.” She wistfully noted that if she “didn’t have to work,” she’d “be out on the beach for a swim.”

Finally, she returned to Grace’s situation, hoping that her aunt was “all right and that the operation proved to be very minor.” She signed off “With lots of love and please write.” Bishop’s own next letter was written less than a month later, on 12 August 1961. The next post will turn to that epistle.

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