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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 108: Domestic matters

The next part of Bishop’s 3 January 1962 letter to her aunts shifted to being back home, to domestic matters, in particular to their cook at the house at Samambaia. Elizabeth and Lota returned to Rio, but as Bishop noted, they “went up to the country for the 24th& 25th of December. On Christmas Day night their “cook began to have her baby… — two months too early.” Before the actual birth, they “got her off to the hospital” in Petrópolis on the morning of the 26th, where “the baby was born.” Bishop noted that in the midst of this “great excitement,” their friend “Mary Morse was on hand and helped give it [the baby] oxygen.” Even though it was put “in an incubator and had the best care,” this tiny infant, “about 6½ months,” did not survive, “but only lived three days.”

The cook was married to their “butler,” who was, as Bishop observed, “broken-hearted.” This tragedy was the most recent in a long line of “seven or so miscarriages.” Truly sad. Elizabeth and Lota were, on the other hand, “relieved.” Bishop uncharitably noted that “the poor girl is so dumb,” adding parenthetically to Aunt Mary that she “will remember her — Maria?” Bishop felt that Maria “couldn’t possibly take care of a normal baby, much less a premature one.” Being an obstetrics nurse early in her career, Grace would have known her share of premature babies.

Elizabeth and Lota’s relief was tempered by the fact that this couple were “going to keep on trying.” In the face of such determination all Bishop could ask was, “what do we do in the meantime?”

Bishop tended the unwell Maria, “spent all last week-end up there cooking.” This thwarted mother spent her time “in bed eating chicken and refusing to comb her hair, etc.” Part of the reason for this behaviour was “Superstitions.” One of these, as Bishop related, was “the lard she ate (just the thing, of course — should be from a male pig, not a female, nor a castrated pig ….)”

Ever the cosmopolitan modernist, “Lota just  blows up.” Having come from a rural childhood with devout grandparents, superstitious ancestors and an abundance of community folklore, Bishop noted that she was “more patient, but it is pretty hopeless.” She also conceded that even with these troubles on both sides, “they have their good points,” which included “never leav[ing] the place, even for an afternoon.” Elizabeth and Lota were less and less often in Samambaia and the cook and butler “take good care of the cats.” And what was more, “they both can shoot — in case of burglars!”

After this saga, Bishop shifted again, assuring Aunt Mary that she “got the snapshot of Pouchie [Mary’s cat] and have it right here on my desk.” She had to admit that this feline was “handsomer than Tobias,” one of their three cats, the other two being Suzuki and Mimosa. All the cats “were so glad to see” them when they returned on the 24th. On Christmas Day they “all rushed to have breakfast in bed” with Bishop.
Elizabeth Bishop and Tobias. Source:
Carmen Oliveira, Flores Raras e Banalíssimas 
(Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1996), between pp. 64–5.
Then Bishop declared that she had also written Aunt Mary, “a long letter just after [Mary] left” in October, and “before I went to N.Y.” Bishop seemed to think her aunt has not received that letter in which she had related “how we found a good him for the little marmoset,” that had so charmed Mary’s younger daughter Joanne. Bishop observed that she had “loved him, too,” but could not “keep a monkey in the house” because “he was giving me asthma.

The next part of this long letter winds down the joint part of the epistle, after which Bishop added over a page just for Grace. To be continued in the next post.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

John Scott's documentary film about Elizabeth Bishop: Update

This "one sheet" just in from producer Walter Forsyth, who is working with film-maker John Scott on his documentary about Elizabeth Bishop, "The Art of Losing." Delighted to share it.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 107: More family and friends

Bishop’s flying sagas were not yet over as she shifted to the next paragraph in her 3 January 1962 letter. She had just declared flying to be “greatly over-rated,” but began the next saga by reminding her aunts that she had flown “to Worcester to see Aunt Florence.” She did this visit on “a Sunday,” in one day, thus flew back in the late afternoon during which “there was another sleet storm and we were late, too.” She just couldn’t seem to catch a break with planes. In spite of this distressful commute, Bishop told her aunts that she was “glad I went, though.” Poor old cranky Aunt Florence was “so glad to see me, all dressed up for the occasion.” It would have been years since they had seen each other, so this elderly relative had to try “hard to remember where I live and what I do.”

Florence had diminished, of course: “she can walk a little,” but “her left hand and arm are paralyzed,” and “she is awfully weak and ga-ga, poor thing.” This state was the very old age Bishop feared the most, perhaps the kind of  old age we all fear most: the loss of our faculties. This was, perhaps, the last time Bishop saw her father’s last surviving sibling.

Bishop then recounts “another trip, by train, to near Baltimore to see my old friend Jane Dewey.” Though the mode of transportation was likely easier on Bishop’s nerves, the state she found Dewey in was deeply distressing. Bishop reported that her friend “has had so many catastrophes during the past two years I can’t bear to think about them all.” Dewey was much younger than Florence, “about 60, I think, or a little over.” So, her troubles were harder to “bear” because by rights she had much more life left to live and deserved to live it well.

One of the catastrophes was “a bad automobile accident last winter that hurt her ribs, etc.” Bishop noted that Dewey herself “never tells me anything like this,” so Bishop got the news from “her sister … or friends.” This sister was “living with her, with her hopelessly paralyzed husband, for six years now,” who was “dying by inches.” Bishop felt “Jane is just being kind to them,” accommodating them as much as she could, to the point of having “an elevator put in her house, etc etc.” Bishop had seen Jane at some point during this previous six years, remembering that the “beautiful big farm — she raises Herfordshire cattle as well as her army job … was [this time] terribly gloomy.” Bishop found “the sister very boring and drinking too much,” a practice about which she should not have offered any judgement.

Apropos of nothing, but simply to inject a bit of levity into this sad story,
an image of Great Village Guinea hens taken at the EB House
by Allison Akgungor in June 2011.
Bishop recounted to her aunts that recently Dewey went “to Mexico to give lectures to the Mexican army chemists,” a task initiated by “the army.” During this trip, another catastrophe: “she broke her knee-cap — and didn’t know it or do anything about it.” As a result she fell again “a few times.” She finally “went to a Mexican Dr who took X-Rays and told her to go home to bed,” and return to the US as soon as possible. The army flew her back two days later, but before that “she got out of bed, fell down again, and broke her right arm.” One wonders the car accident was, perhaps, a reason for all this falling. She reached “her farm on a stretcher, or course.”

Bishop paused in this rather sad tale to scribble in the margin, “I told you some of this before.” But, in fact, she hadn’t, at least not in any letter that survives.

The troubles continued when in July 1961 “the brother-in-law died at last,” and then “the sister had a hernia operation.” We all experience this kind of clustering of troubles, making me wonder if there is not some law of physics or force in the universe — a kind of electro-magnetic force perhaps? — that causes it. Dewey underwent treatment as a result of all her falls, spending “two or three months … in Johns Hopkins having nerve-blocks or something awful on her arm,” because of “crushed nerves.” Well, that sounds beyond painful. Her knee healed, “but her arm and hand are completely paralyzed,” an example of the cure being, perhaps worse than the injury or illness. Bishop noted with no irony and obvious frustration that “she needs them [her arm and hand] in her work, badly.”

The troubles continued. Dewey’s sister returned “home from her hospital” and surgery, only to fall down and break “her left ankle.” In the midst of this relentlessness, a grim litany, Dewey and her sister “drove to meet me — the sister can drive again.” They travelled “40 miles in a snowstorm.” When Bishop saw them, they were “both limping away on the platform.” Not surprising, Bishop observed that her friend had “aged so I scarcely recognized her.” In the face of all this trouble, Bishop quietly described Dewey as “very brave,” noting that she “just jokes about how they had to use that elevator.”

All Bishop could say to her aunts was: “Have you ever heard such a tale of woe?” She wasn’t sure “why I am telling you all of it,” but in part to reassure her aunts “that we all have no broken bones, as far as I know.” (Though Grace has some sort of issue with her ribs that gets mentioned later.) Bishop concluded that she was “glad I got to see her.” There had been a plan for Dewey “to visit me here this year,” as she was “dying to come to Brazil.” Sadly, such plans were off, of course, she “can’t now.”

After having got out of her system the final parts of her time in the US, Bishop turned to being back in Brazil, which wasn’t without its issues either. The next post will pick up that thread.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 106: Flying

The next subject Bishop took up in her 3 January 1962 letter had occasionally come up before: flying. She did not like flying and the accounts she now gave her aunts explain in part the reason for her dislike and discomfort. Before her detailed story of how she and Lota travelled to NYC, she first noted, “I am so sorry Aunt Grace was afraid I was in that plane crash,” declaring that Grace should have known otherwise because, as she reiterated, “I did write, as I said, from N.Y.” The only crash in late 1961 that I found that could be the event to concern Grace was: “AerolíneasArgentinas Flight 322 … a scheduled Buenos Aires-São Paulo-Port ofSpain-New York City international passenger service, operated with a Comet 4 …crashed during climbout on the early stages of its second leg, when it collidedwith tree tops shortly after take off … on 23 November 1961. Therewere 52 fatalities, 40 of them passengers.” This flight, however, was going in the opposite direction, that is, towards NYC, and happened long before Bishop and Lota returned to Brazil.
Bishop had written her last 1961 letter to Grace on 12 December and reported earlier in this first 1962 letter that she and Lota left New York on 17 December, well after this crash happened. Just when these letters reached Grace is unknown, but she perhaps had heard about this crash before any of them arrived. One can understand her worry. Air travel in the 1960s was a risky business. Indeed, on 18 September 1961, a Douglas DC-6B, carrying Dag Hammarskjöld,second Secretary-General of the United Nations, crashed near Ndola. All on board died.

(How Bishop knew on 3 January that Grace had thought Bishop might be on this plane is explained later in this long January epistle.)

After this preliminary comment, Bishop noted that they travelled to NYC on “Pan-Am.” Perhaps to divert her aunts from further worry, she launched into a story about that journey northward, back in early November. She said they flew that particular airline “because of our friend the pilot, Page Smith.” I have tried to find such a person online, but have had no luck. Since they were friends of such an important person, Bishop noted that there was “a lot of fuss at the airport.” They got VIP treatment: “we were taken specially out to the plane in a car,” no plebian walking out “like everyone else.” Before boarding “we had our pictures taken several times — with Page in the middle with his arms around our necks.” In spite of what we might regard as a lot of aviation accidents, 22 in 1961, for example, flying was clearly an event with some glamour attached to it.*

The amusing aspect of all of this ado was, as Bishop described, that “the effect … was rather spoiled because we were carrying so many bundles and baskets, etc.” The friend who was “seeing us off said he was ashamed of us — we looked so countryified [sic] — as if we had taken along picnic lunches to eat on the plane.”

This “grand send-off” was short-lived because they “had an awful trip” — clearly, even knowing the pilot only went so far. But, as Bishop noted, “we never do seem to have much luck with planes” (perhaps the reason Grace jumped to her conclusion and worried). For starters, the trip was not direct, but included a first leg to Brasilia, “supposedly for fifteen minutes,” which turned into “six hours — something wrong with the brakes.”**

Because of Lota’s stature with her work on the park in Rio, they “were given a guided tour” of a city they both “hate[d] like poison.” They had “dinner at the hotel” and “waited and waited.”

All this unpleasant delay meant they “got to N.Y. in the middle of the night.” When they got to Perry St., they had to “wake up our friends who live across the street at 4:30 AM to get the keys.”

After such an experience, even their friendship with the pilot didn’t deter them from changing airlines for their return trip: “we decided to switch back to Varig.” It turned out one airline was as bad as the next in this instance, and “even worse.” Even before getting on the plane, “the flight had to be cancelled two or three times because of” Bishop’s work schedule and “because of sleet storms.” Of course, by the time they actually did leave in mid-December, “closer to Christmas, the planes got crowded.” In the end, the “Varig put us on the Argentine Airline — a smaller English Cometjet,” which was in fact the airline and type of plane that had crashed in November 1961!
All Bishop could say about the final return journey home was that “the trip was all right, but several hours late, the food lousy, etc.” It was an overnight flight and Bishop reported that “in the morning just before reaching Rio,” she “started to faint — I didn’t know one could faint, sitting down.” Without missing a beat, “the stewardess immediately hitched me up to an oxygen mask that all passengers seem to have — it cured me in no time.”*** One can only imagine what the cabin pressure and air quality was like then (we know what it is like now!), and Bishop concluded “the air must have been bad to begin with.” Indeed, on 8November 1961 … a Lockheed Constellation L-049, crashed on landing at ByrdField near Richmond, Virginia; all 74 passengers — mostly new US Army recruitsbeing flown to their base for training — died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation,along with three crew members; the captain and flight engineer survive byescaping the burning wreckage.”

No wonder Bishop didn’t like to fly.

Not only did the travellers have their issues, but also the person waiting for them to arrive, “our friend Mary [Morse],” who “had been waiting … at the Rio airport with her baby, Monica, for three hours or more, poor things.” To add insult to injury, Bishop left her “wristwatch on the plane and couldn’t get it back!” Bishop readily confessed all was made worse because “of course I’m always petrified, anyway.” To deal with what was a clear phobia, she resorted to being “heavily drugged … Well, I think flying is greatly over-rated!” I think so too.

The next chunk of this long letter returns to the trials and troubles of family and friends and will be taken up in the next post.

* Note: Even in my youth I remember taking my first flight from Halifax, N.S., to Sydney, Cape Breton, on a class trip. I was 12, so it was 1973. The whole class walked out to the plane and stood outside, some of us even on the steps going into the aircraft, and had our picture taken. I still have the newspaper clipping that covered our excursion.

** I remember in the late 1990s (before 9-11) being on a plane in the airport in Miami waiting to taxi out to the runway, but there was a delay that stretched out for some time: well over an hour and more. I had a window seat and I could see workmen trying to do something under a wing. Well, I began to get quite upset and the crowded plane was starting to get tense. In the end, they had to take us all off because the plane could not be fixed. I was flying from Cancun to Miami to NYC to Halifax. In the end I went from Miami to Toronto and the next morning to Halifax. I don’t fly a lot, so all this stuff was quite unsettling; but I suppose for seasoned travellers, it is par for the course.

*** I remember another trip back from Cancun with my sisters when I had serious issues with pain in my head (one of the reasons I don’t like to fly is because of the air pressure changes, which affect me greatly, even in a pressurized cabin). I, too, had a flight attendant who stepped right up (I could not lift my head off my lap, I was in such pain) and put moist, hot towelettes into two plastic cups and told me to hold them over my ears. It did the trick somehow. The pain quickly began to ease.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 104: 1962 & Back in Brazil

The next letter Bishop wrote to Grace is dated 3 January 1962, from Rio. The fraught, exhausting time in New York City was past and with the start of another year, Bishop settled herself at her typewriter and began what would be one of her longest letters to her aunt. Actually, it was a long letter to “My dear Aunties.” As Bishop explained at the top, she was “going to do something I really think is very impolite — write you both a letter at the same time.” The other auntie in question was Mary. Bishop used “carbon paper.” (Does anyone remember this device? One had to be a good typist to manage it, as making corrections was difficult. I wonder which one got the carbon copy.)

Bishop reasoned that since she had “the same things to tell both of you, more or less” and since she owed “you both letters,” she opted for this less than ideal approach. She also noted, perhaps with a bit of frustration, that she had not “written any [letters] to speak of since last October,” at least since she and Lota had arrived in New York. In addition to all of these circumstances, she returned to Brazil to find “stacks of mail.” Everything combined caused her “shortcut methods,” for which she wrote, “please forgive me.”

Her claim that she had not written any letters was not actually true, at least in terms of her aunts (and perhaps for others as well), which she corrected at the start of the next paragraph: “I DID, however, write you each a letter shortly after I got to New York.” Upon that arrival, Bishop still believed she might “still make it to either Montreal or Nova Scotia.” Quickly, the amount of work on the Brazil book made her realize that plan was unlikely. Bishop tried to recall just when those letters were written: “around November 15th, I think” (It was actually 10 December for her last letter to Grace in 1961.) As if she needed to defend her claim, she added, “I’m positive about this.” As a rule, Bishop did not make copies of her letters, which went off into space-time never to be seen by her again. With all the frustrations and the need to leave the US quickly in December, it is little wonder Bishop lost track in her mind about when she had written.

After all this avowing, Bishop got to the crux of her frustration, the fact that she had not heard from her aunts, “Apparently neither of you received these letters.” Bishop’s endless complaints about “the Brazilian mails” being “the worst,” had to be rethought in light of these missing letters. But in fact, Grace had received her letter. Perhaps her own busy “Christmas rush” prevented her from writing. Having been told they would be immediately returning to Brazil, perhaps Grace felt it best just to wait until Bishop was settled again. Bishop speculated on what could have happened to her letters: “maybe they still haven’t got to you,” because of that “Christmas rush”; “maybe they got lost”; “or, even more likely — they are there somewhere in that apartment on Perry Street, under the table or something.” Bishop was sure she had given her aunts the Perry Street address, more than once. She clearly had an expectation that she would hear from them at some point while in the US.

When she arrived in NYC, she fully intended to try to see one or both of them, that she would be done with the “Time, Life, Inc.” book by “the end of November.” She never did finish the work on the book and the IRS forced her out earlier than planned, “December 15th or was it 17th, finally.”

Those final weeks and days in the US were rather chaotic for Bishop and she came back to Brazil with the book unfinished: “and I am STILL working on” it. One can hear the exasperation when she moaned, “I don’t think it will ever end.” If Bishop learned anything in this process it was that she “wouldn’t work for them again for $50,000.” She had “never worked so hard in my life” on something that she felt, in the end, “was an absolute waste of time.” The stress had taken a toll physically. She reported she had “lost ten pounds and have had bronchitis ever since I came back!” She was so exhausted by the experience, she also reported that she “slept from the time we got back until Christmas, I think.” Well, an exaggeration, but to make a point.
This “poor little book” was still filling her mind, even as a new year was getting underway. She was sure it “isn’t going to please anyone — me, LIFE, nor the Brazilian friends I did hope to please.” She stated again that both aunts would receive copies. As displeased as she was, she needed her family and friends to see the evidence of all that hard work, fraught and unsatisfactory as it was. She reiterated that even as relentlessly ongoing as the process felt, there was an end in sight: “it will be out around the end of February I think.” She pleaded with her aunts not to “judge my prose style by it, for heaven’s sake.” Bishop was even “awfully disappointed in the photographs.” The Time-Life editors had, apparently, boasted about this part of the book, but Bishop reported that “they had almost none [photographs] when I got there.” She concluded this final chapter of a dreadful saga declaring that she “fought a blood fight for every one you will see,” ending this long paragraph with a hand-written scribble, “— that is any good at all.”

This long letter is just getting started and will require many posts to work through. Before getting to new topics, there was yet one more long reiteration about their time in NY and its impact on her and why she was unable to see either of them, as she so desperately wanted to do. It will comprise the next post.