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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 93: Politics and the art of complaining

The next subject of Bishop’s 26 August 1961 letter to Aunt Grace involved the political situation in Brazil, and how it meshed in Bishop’s mind with family. On 25 August 1961, Jânio Quadros, who became Brazil’s President on 31 January, “resigned.” Bishop described this event as “a big political upheaval.” Her response to this resignation was: “God knows what is going to happen next.” She had little “doubt the army will get in on it somehow.” Bishop described Quadros as “a wonderful economist … but slightly crazy, I’m sure.” She opined that his resignation “wouldn’t matter so much but the vice-pres.” (João Goulart), “is a real old crook, from the dictator-gang.”
(Jânio Quadros)
Even though she’d been in Brazil for a decade already, she was still an outsider and an American, so her views must be taken in that light. Still, she lived with Lota who was deep into all things political and Bishop reported that “Lota is terribly upset,” that “everyone is.” They were all “hover[ing] over the radio news.” Since Lota had just returned from town, Bishop noted that she would now “read the newspapers she’s brought back.” So uncertain was this situation, that Bishop observed: “We might even leave Brazil — who knows.”

After having lunch and reading the papers, Bishop was able to report to Grace that “the country is ‘remaining calm’ but there may be a civil war.” Not to alarm her aunt too much with such talk, Bishop quickly clarified that things were “all too confused” to know for sure what would happen, and besides, she noted, “things are never very bloody here, you know — there is no danger at all.”

Bishop’s first feeling was for “all my Brazilian friends and for the country,” for which she felt “dreadfully sorry.” Then, without any segue, Bishop brought up her cousin: “I didn’t see E last week — haven’t seen her for 2 or 3 weeks.” The Naudins had been “in Terezopolis [sic] for ten days.” Part of the reason for shifting to this subject was to describe Elizabeth’s and Ray’s different approaches to living in Brazil. Bishop observed that her cousin “is pretty good about things here.” It was her husband, a Brazilian by birth, who annoyed Bishop, even though she didn’t “see him much.”

To give Grace an idea of what she meant Bishop wrote, “Remember how Uncle George [Shepherdson, Maude’s husband] used to get on your nerves at the farm telling everyone how things were done so much better in the U.S.A.?” For Bishop that said it all, described Ray’s attitude completely. All these two natives of their countries (Canada and Brazil) could do was “complain, complain, complain.” For Bishop, this harping was “boring, and rather tactless.” She conceded that Ray was “a clever boy in his business … but he doesn’t seem to have any political sense whatever and says such stupid things — exactly like Uncle George!”

Bishop reasoned that since Ray was “brought up here … he ought to be bright enough to see there are very good reasons for the country’s being backward.” But the things he complained about baffled her: “is it so AWFUL, anyway, to have to wait a few days for car license…?” For Bishop, “endless criticisers [sic] always pick on the unimportant things.” She noted that they were expecting “another pair of them,” that is, “criticisers,” for dinner that day, “I’m dreading it.” One can’t help but think of Bishop’s own rather endless complaints about the Brazilian postal service, and how that must have sounded to Brazilians.

Bishop continued with the subjects the complainers complained about: “Yes — Rio is dirty … yes our friend the governor ought to do something about it.” But, she argued, “that isn’t the most important thing, after all!” And hadn’t the governor “built something like 50 schools already….”

Bishop seemed genuinely surprised and proud of the fact that her cousin “doesn’t complain much, thank goodness,” and seemed “to take things in her stride pretty well.” Bishop observed how upsetting it was for Lota to hear all the complaining, “naturally! — she’s not blind.” She recounted how “the wife of our (US) Cultural Attaché here told Lota all about the trouble she had with maids who stole, and how she bought some candy that had cockroaches in it,” telling Lota these things “as if it would amuse her!” All Bishop could conclude by such insensitivity was to assert, “And then Americans wonder why they’re not popular in foreign countries!”

All the exclamation marks in this lengthy paragraph bespeak Bishop’s emotion (annoyance, frustration, hurt) around these subjects.

This long meandering letter now began to wind down. The next post will offer her conclusion.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 92: Dr. Spock

The next part of Bishop’s letter of 26 August 1961 is a long paragraph about child rearing. I have always found it both fascinating and slightly amusing that Elizabeth and Lota, childless women, had such firm and involved views on parenting. But, I suppose, we were all children once, so have all experienced parenting in the most direct and intimate way, to which we all have a response and theories of what was right or wrong about our experiences. But Bishop didn’t just hold her own views, she also read about this subject in a direct and even serious way.

She begins the dense paragraph by asking her aunt if she “and Phyllis know all about Dr. Spock?” Benjamin Spock was the guru of child development and parenting in that day. Bishop noted: “everyone seems to read him these days,” and what with all the children coming and going in their household, she confessed, “I have kept a copy in my bedroom ever since Lota’s ‘grandchildren’ started to visit us.” She even reported that Mary Morse was raising her adopted daughter Monica “strictly according to Spock.” The book she was talking about was his The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care. Bishop noted that she “began with Betty, the little black girl,” that is, applying Dr. Spock’s methods.
She then wondered if Grace had seen a recent issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal with “an article by the same Dr Spock … about retarded children.” Well, that is not a term we’d use today, and it makes one cringe in the reading. Bishop clarified, “I never see that magazine but just happened to see that number at a friend’s house in Rio and thought it [the article] wonderful.” She wanted Grace to say if she had not seen it so that Bishop could “get if from her [friend] and send it to you — not to Phyllis, naturally.” Bishop felt that Spock’s “advice is so sensible,” so that “if things don’t develop too well for Miriam you could sort of hand it on to Phyllis bit by bit.” One does feel there are good intentions here.
The next part of the paragraph is Bishop’s synopsis of this article, which was about “two retarded children that had been brought to him [Dr. Spock], about the same age — who couldn’t go to regular school.” One of the children “came from a ‘good family’,” which meant “middle class … who were terribly upset and worried.” They “tried to force the little boy to learn how to read & write and keep up with the other children, etc.” The result: he “got worse.” The other child “belonged to ignorant Italian immigrants” (oh dear), “who could scarcely read or write themselves.” These parents had quite different expectations for their child and it was “no disgrace at all” for them to put the child “in special classes for backward children …. They loved him just the same.” It was sufficient that this child “grow up and be a laborer like his father.” The result: “of course, … the little boy improved — and was very happy, and the family was happy, etc.”

Bishop paused and apologized for “boring you,” if Grace had herself already seen this article, but she excused herself for the lengthy account because the article “was so good it made a big impression on me.” For Bishop, the lesson of the article was “just to take the child the way he is and don’t be disappointed if he turns out to be rather dumb.” Well, for someone as intelligent as Bishop, this whole subject, delved into in such detail in this epistle to her aunt, offers not only the idioms and understanding of the day, but also her own keen interest in the many facets of the subject. She is trying to understand something of the challenges not only for the general parenting of any child with challenges or special needs (even these terms are being shed these days), but also specifically trying to understand what her cousin Phyllis was facing and wanting to contribute information as a way to participate at such a distance.

In the end, however, Bishop had to concede, “Phyllis I’m sure is enough like you to take these things very well” — and Bishop was absolutely correct there. Phyllis and Ernest Sutherland were excellent parents to dear little Miriam, who, in spite of her challenges, had a busy, engaged life, even in the context of a wider society that was still struggling with its biases and prejudices about difference. Bishop’s hope was that Miriam’s issue was “very slight,” and “if the little girl looks all right — probably 90% of the population will never know the difference, anyway.”

Bishop couldn’t, alas, just let it end there and added a parenthetical account of “Marjorie Steven’s brother’s 1st baby — a boy,” who “was … some kind of idiot.” Again, oh my. She wasn’t sure what “type — a tragedy.” But she mentioned it to observe that “these things happen to everybody impartially, thank goodness.”

However we regard all these thoughts, ideas and speculations, in their day they were entirely within the spectrum of response, and probably on the end of the more liberal, accepting position. Knowing Phyllis as I did, I can attest to her utter acceptance of her daughter and her effort to give Miriam every opportunity to participate in daily life as best she could. When Bishop met Miriam in the early 1970s, I am sure she felt as I did (twenty years later), that she had met a remarkable person.

This part of the letter wound down with a promise to “try to write a note to Aunt Mabel this week.” That intention had been unfulfilled for some time. But she conceded that she was “up to my neck in work, of course, and away behind schedule.” Just at that moment, Lota appeared “for lunch — back form Petropolis.” Besides work and lunch, they also were having “company tonight and tomorrow — we wish we hadn’t.” They just wanted some quiet time with their “lonely” cats who were “so glad to see us back.”

The next part of this long epistle turned to politics and will comprise the next post.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 91: Florence and Miriam

The next subject of Bishop’s long letter of 26 August 1961 was Aunt Florence. She told Grace that she “had a letter from Kay yesterday,” one of the Bishop cousins, and reported that “apparently the hospital or nursing home where Aunt F is has now improved a bit.” She also noted that another cousin, Nancy, “drops in just about every day, I think,” which meant for Bishop that “she really gets the worst of it.” She reiterated that she would “go there” when she visited the US later in the year, perhaps more out of curiosity than any great concern for Florence or the cousins, about whom she declared that “they are all so suspicious in that family and eager to get a little money.” The irony here was that Bishop thought “poor old Aunt F” had little left, “almost nothing … by now.” What she found hard to “endure” was “all the gossip about what Cousin Priscilla did with the diamond wrist-watch and so on … Who cares. I certainly don’t.” What she claimed mattered to her most was seeing “if she is getting fairly decent care, that’s all,” acknowledging that this elderly relative “is absolutely impossible, it seems, to deal with — more so than ever.” It had been “eight months” since Bishop had last heard directly from Florence and she figured that was “for good.”

The next subject, news from Grace, was more sensitive and worrying for Bishop, and concerned “little Miriam,” something that sounded “so awful it is hard to believe.” Bishop does not spell it out, but it would have been the diagnosis of Down syndrome. Grace perhaps had encountered such children during her long obstetrics practice and assured Bishop that the doctor indicated “it is extremely mild,” prompting Bishop to declare, “oh I do hope so.”

The understanding of this condition was certainly not as advanced and comprehensive as it is today, when many people with this condition live long, busy and productive lives.* At that time, fear of the unknown and of those who were different, generated all manner of labels. Even for someone as intelligent as Bishop, the language she used (of the time) makes us cringe today.

After acknowledging this news and her worry/hope, Bishop observed that “if the baby’s head is well-shaped that sounds as if it must be very slight — the real cases have pointy heads, I think.” Oh dear. Even if this case was “slight,” Bishop still saw this condition as “rotten luck,” and extrapolated to “what a rotten place the world is anyway — sometimes!” She was reassured by the doctor, who sounded “as if he knows what he’s talking about … And who knows? — they do such wonderful things now,” and speculated that perhaps “in a year or two they might make some new medical discoveries about that — and cancer, too, we trust.” (Grace’s operation to remove a growth had the spectre of cancer around it.)

These ponderings prompted Bishop to add a parenthetical aside about a task she was commissioned to do while in N.Y.: “get a supply of a drug that one can only get in the U.S. for the epileptic sister of my dressmaker … a wonderful woman who keeps the whole family going).”

These complex, difficult issues (both the particular and the general) triggered by the news about Miriam turned Bishop’s thoughts to the equally complex and difficult issues around child-rearing and parenting, about which Bishop had many thoughts and ideas — a subject actually quite important to Bishop. The next long paragraph in this letter is a treatise on the subject and will comprise the next post.

*Note: Like Bishop, who met her for the first time in the early 1970s, Miriam was the first person I ever met with Down syndrome, though I had heard about this condition. Miriam was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known and we had a special bond, having been born almost at the same time. Miriam’s condition brought her many limitations, but she was as active a family member as any of the other Sutherlands (after all, we all have limitations of one kind or another, some more visible than others), and she was, arguably, the most loved and loving member of her family. She remembered everyone’s name and their birthdays. She loved going to camp and any kind of celebration, especially her own birthday and Christmas. Her favourite singer was Rita MacNeil. She was known and loved by all in Tatamagouche where she lived for the nearly four decades of her life.
(Miriam Sutherland in her den at her home in Balfron,
near Tatamagouche, 1990s. A photo of Rita MacNeil is
on the wall behind her, along with a photo of her cat.)

A recent example shows how people with the challenge of Down syndrome can live perfectly normal lives: this year, Will Brewer became Halifax’s Town Crier, the first Town Crier in Canada with Down syndrome. Wouldn’t Miriam be thrilled.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 90: Reiteration and Clarification

Bishop’s next letter to Grace is dated 26 August 1961, just two weeks after the last one. It was prompted by the receipt of a letter from her aunt dated 13 August, written just a day after Bishop’s last, so they crossed en route. She was at Samabaia where they had gone “for the week-end last night.” She had found Grace’s letter “at the P.O.” It took less than two weeks to make the journey, surely not that long considering the distance. The content of Grace’s letter and the fact that she was up in the mountains away from Rio, a place where she could relax more easily, meant Bishop had the time and inclination to respond at length and this letter was the longest she wrote since January.

Because of the cross purposes of the sending and receiving, news often required reiteration and clarification. Bishop realized that she hadn’t been “clear enough in my letter,” that she was “going to come to see you no matter where you are — either Montreal or N.S.” For Bishop, “one is just as easy as the other … in fact Montreal is easier, I suppose.” It was only “1½ hours by plane from N.Y.” to Montreal. Mary Bulmer Ross lived there, so Grace would be visiting her younger sister. The timing for this possible visit would have to work around Mary’s own visit to Brazil, which was taking place towards the end of September or early October. Bishop’s trip to New York City was tentatively scheduled for sometime in October. Bishop urged Grace to “by all means go” to Montreal, if you feel like going.” She clearly was factoring in a visit, a prospect that made the New York sojourn more palatable.

Bishop had also heard from Aunt Mary, who said “you have lots of friends near her there.” Prompting Bishop to think that going to Montreal “might be more of a rest than staying at home,” where she was involved with Phyllis’s busy family, and a host of relatives.

Bishop reiterated that she would “have to work hard with that damned LIFE magazine for about three weeks, probably,” but assured Grace that she would “fly up to spend a few days with you wherever you may be,” once the work was done, “as soon as I can.”

The other plans for the New York trip were also rather up in the air, Bishop noting that “Lota said she wouldn’t come to the US with me,” because “the exchange is dreadful.” Bishop was hoping, however, that Lota would “change her mind” because she would “need her moral support while ‘revising’ my little book.” The fact that “an old friend of mine” had offered “her and her husband’s studio apartment in Greenwich Village” (this was LorenMacIvor and Lloyd Frankenberg*), as “they are in Europe,” made Bishop hope even more that Lota would reconsider because it meant “a big saving.” Bishop’s own travel was covered as well, so all these inducements made Bishop “hope Lota will come.” Lota herself had friends “near N.Y.,” who she could visit while Bishop went to Canada.
(Loren MacIvor)

Even if Bishop and Grace could have talked directly, there were so many factors to consider in these plans that it took several more months for them to set up, and in the end, things did not turn out as expected or desired. One of the factors was Grace’s health herself. Bishop confirmed that she had got her aunt’s “first letter about the operation,” and was “relieved to hear at least it wasn’t any worse,” even as it was “bad enough, all right.” She wondered if Grace had “to keep going back for tests, etc? — I imagine so.” She again urged her beloved aunt to “take care of yourself,” and concluded this part of the letter with “Thank God it wasn’t any worse.”

With all of this travel reiterating and clarifying done, Bishop shifted to that other aunt of infamous distinction: Florence. The next post will update that situation and upsetting news about little Miriam.

(*Note: Bishop had known Loren MacIvor, a painter, and Lloyd Frankenberg, a poet, for many years. They lived on Perry St. in Greenwich Village in a storied home. Click here to read more — keep reading this interesting article and Bishop will appear.)