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

Friday, March 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 102: Disappointment

Having left behind her sad account of frail, elderly Aunt Florence, Bishop turned to other things in her 12 December 1961 letter. Alas, these things were no cheerier. First, she told her aunt that she had gone “to see my old friend Jane Dewey who is sick.” She was the daughter of the famous philosopher John Dewey. Born in 1900, Jane became a well-known physicist. Bishop first met Jane and her father in the late 1930s in Key West. As Brett Millier writes, Bishop “always said that she understood nothing of [John] Dewey’s philosophy but had boundless admiration for the man. Dewey and Moore were, she said, the most truly ‘democratic’ people she knew — able to talk easily with people of any social, economic, or educational class.” (146) Bishop’s poem “A Cold Spring” is dedicated to Jane Dewey, who lived in Maryland. (I endeavoured to find an image of Jane Dewey on the internet — there are a number of her father — but she seems quite elusive.)
(John Dewey. From Wikipedia.)
Dewey had not only been “sick … for months with ulcer (probably cancer),” Bishop reported that she also had “a broken leg, and a broken arm.” Bishop could only imagine the “tough time” she had had “the past eight months,” but all these troubles made her feel she “just had to see her.” Bishop wrote that Jane was “recovering but her right hand is paralyzed because of a crushed nerve — awful.” Jane Dewey died in 1965.

Even though Bishop apologized for telling her aunt “this tale of woe,” undoubtedly, Grace appreciated the impulse to visit such an invalid and offer some cheer. But what Bishop wrote next might have made Grace wonder a bit.

Bishop began her next explanation with the preamble, “What I want to say makes me feel awful — breaks my heart, honestly.” Grace could have anticipated the next statement: “I don’t think I can get to see you,” something Bishop had been promising with gusto from the start of her report of a return to the US to work on the Brazil book.

The cause of this change of plans was money, something Bishop had not anticipated, declaring, “If only we had known ahead [of] time,” but a matter she had not even thought about. The culprit of this financial issue was the IRS: “I called up my income tax man last week,” who informed her that “as a foreign resident, if I stay only 28 days I can keep all the money I earn … on this job.” Overstaying meant she would “have to pay a whopping tax on it,” Her figure was $1,500.00. A tidy sum in 1961. If she had to cough up this amount, it “would make the whole six month’s job” (most of which happened in Brazil), “scarcely worth having done.” One more reason to regret taking on this project.

Losing that amount of money was “a big enough hunk … to mean a lot in my way of life next year.” As a result of this regulation, she said she now had “to leave the U S before next week.” Bishop was, most certainly, sad about this turn of events: “dreadfully sorry”; “I wanted to see you so much”; “Please believe me … I couldn’t be sorrier.” And having been out of the US so long, one can understand Bishop not knowing income tax rules. Still, Grace must have been disappointed in a way Bishop herself was not, having been promised a visit over and over again. Bishop wished she “were a little richer,” then she could “say to hell with the money and come anyway.” But it was not possible.

Bishop also noted that she had not “heard from you for so long” (Grace probably hesitated to intrude when she knew Bishop was working on such a big job), and Bishop was “wondering how you are and where you are and if everything is all right with you.” Her one suggestion to mitigate the disappointment a little was the possibility of calling, “tonight or tomorrow — no — it’s too late — 11 P M.” Clearly, Bishop is thinking out loud here, for this letter would be days, if not weeks reaching Grace, and Bishop would be well back in Brazil by that time.

She wondered “if Phyllis has a phone?” She also realized that she “shouldn’t have used  this paper,” because it meant she couldn’t include “a Christmas present in it.” But she did say that she would do so “in another envelop [sic].”

This rather frustrated and upset letter began a slow winding down, which the next post will present.

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