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

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 88: Getting to Nova Scotia

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was a two-parter dated 12-13 August. “because of Lota’s job — and mine (more later),” Bishop told her aunt that they had been “in Rio most of the time now.” As a result, they got mail only when they went to the mountains on the weekends, “or when someone brings it to us.” That was the case in this instance, when “a friend brought a big batch,” in which was Grace’s letter dated 26 July, written on the same day of Bishop’s last to her aunt. Grace had written this most recent letter “from the Hospital,” which meant she was still dealing with the aftermath of the operation. This news upset Bishop: “I am so damned sorry to hear you have had such a bad time.” She realized all the more how “brave” her aunt was. Bishop wondered if Grace had received her own 26 July letter, which responded to the news that Grace needed to have surgery: “I bet you didn’t.” Her solution to the unreliability of the mails was to make “a carbon of this and will mail two of them…,” separately.

It is nigh impossible for us in this day of instant, electronic communication to grasp the space-time involved in this correspondence. Keeping track of the back and forth, with the press of daily life intervening, was a challenge at best. But Bishop’s deep connection with Grace made her keen to stay in touch regardless of the frustrations. All this space-time also meant repetition, to ensure news got conveyed and also because Bishop would forget what she had written, as we all would — she didn’t keep copies of her personal correspondence, and even when she did, it was to doubly ensure receipt at the other end. Letter writing was not a simple act on any level. Grace did indeed get Bishop’s letter of 26 July, though just when is impossible to know, since her side of things is lost; but there it is in Bishop’s papers at Vassar. All this said, about delays and lost mail, instant communication also has its own issues. One of the most significant is no sober second thought, we write quickly and send quickly and respond quickly, which can sometimes lead to all manner of misunderstandings. And woe to anyone who doesn’t respond instantly, which can be regarded as a serious slight. Ah, the vagaries of human communication, no matter what the era.

With her carbon copy, twice-sent insurance, Bishop continued: “I do hope everything is going well and that you are feeling better.” For Bishop, this outcome mattered more than her aunt reading any letter she wrote. Based on what Grace had written, Bishop sensed that things were okay: “It does sound as though you had got it good and early, thank God.” Even so, she also sensed that things had been “tough” and declared that she could “sympathize and hope and pray you feel better soon.” Finally, that outcome was all that mattered for this far away niece thinking of her favourite aunt.
(Grace was known to dabble in poetry, mostly humorous verse.
This example, in her own hand, is on a topic that she
knew mostly from the nursing side, but in 1961, 
from the patient side, too. AUA)
Ever the practical person, Bishop included “a small present for you,” which she knew was “a drop in the bucket.” A jot so her aunt could “buy yourself some delicacies … or a new hat….”

Since Bishop was not sure Grace had received the previous letter, which had gone into detail about her fellowship and new job, she next reiterated the situation in a lengthy paragraph. She repeated her intention of “postpon[ing] using” the travel grant “until next year” because Lota was so busy and she “didn’t want to go alone.” She reminded Grace that Lota “is working awfully hard and it is pretty boring for me here in Rio.” Then the “surprise” of the offer of the writing job: “LIFE magazine gets out a series of picture-books, sort of — each about a different country.” She down-played the text she would write as “about 100 pages or a bit more,” and expressed even more strongly her view of “Time and Life,” declaring that she “loathe[d] … everything they stand for — but they pay well.” One has to pause here, again, and wonder why Bishop chose to accept this offer, even if she was bored in Rio. Was it only the money? A reason that did not fully mesh with Bishop’s general views about “commerce and contemplation.” Our declared reasons for doing anything are often underpinned by a raft of subconscious reasons that might actually surprise us. Bishop was as human as the rest of us, and could choose things that were not necessarily in her best interests.

She repeated once again that another big inducement to accepting was the air fare to “N.Y., 1st class, and expenses there for three weeks, in October, while we ‘revise’.” As much as anything, as future letters to Grace attest, this prospect became quite an ideé fixe for her, because she began to factor in a serious intention to get to Nova Scotia. As if psyching herself up, she explained to her aunt that “revise” meant that “they take what I write and put it through their own special meat-grinder so it sounds just like them and not like me.” Even as the self-declared reasons for not putting herself through this process mounted, she kept returning to “but they pay well enough to make it a fairly good bargain, I think.” Did she really think so? Our species’ capacity for rationalization is significant.

She still had an out because she had “not signed the contract yet,” even though she had it in hand. However, she had “already done three chapters,” so she thought she would “go on with it,” even as “it is hell — I hate this kind of writing — ALL of Brazilian history, geography, and politics reduced to a pill form.” And the turn around time for this work was “two or three months.” For someone who wrote painfully slowly, this demand was perhaps the hardest to achieve. The immediate upside to the work was that “it keeps me awfully busy!” Matching Lota, one thinks.

Then the inducement of “if I get to N Y in October I am going to stay on an extra week or ten days and somehow or to her  get down to see you.” Bishop realized that she had already explained some of this to Grace in the last letter: “oh dear — my brain’s not functioning very well these days.” She was already planning her itinerary: “I could fly to Boston — stop over one or two nights in Worcester,” to investigate first hand “poor old Aunt F[’s]” situation, “and then fly down to Halifax for a couple of days.” She realized it meant “awfully little time — but I am determined to get to see you if I get that far.” Her words do seem to hold some sense of urgency, a real need to see Grace, which perhaps was a strong reason to go against her better judgement.

The main part of this letter soon wound down, but before Bishop mailed it, she added a lengthy postscript the next day, which will comprise the next post.

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