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

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.

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