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

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.

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