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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 111: A bit of gossip, finally

Bishop was slowly getting to the “gossip” she wanted to share with Grace in her 3 January 1962 letter. She was almost at the end of the fourth page of this densely typed letter and the penultimate paragraph of that page, which focused on the holiday just past: Christmas. But before that description, she had to express her sympathy to her aunt: “I am so sorry to hear about the ribs, are they getting better?” Grace must have injured herself as the letters that had recently come to hand must have reported. Then, without a pause, Bishop wondered, “where you did spend Christmas finally?” Grace would have had several options.

Then came the account of Elizabeth and Lota’s holiday, which was not their usual visit to “Cabo Frio, that beach place we like.” The friends who lived there “had other visitors,” and, after all, they had just returned from their slog in NYC. So, they “just went home for three days and ate roast pork,” meaning they went to the house at Samambaia, the Brazilian place that was “home” for Bishop.

To mark the festive season, Bishop told her aunt that they had “set up a toy village just for our own amusement.” The child in the household, Monica, was “much too young to enjoy it.” This decorating happened because “Lota bought a lot of little figures, etc in N Y — lovely.” They arranged this village “on the hall chest of drawers,” putting “green stuff in the back.” When I first read this account, I was surprised, as Lota seems to be the last person one would think of liking such Christmas kitsch, let alone collecting a whole scene of it.

To augment this activity and the “roast pork,” Bishop reported that she “made a batch of something called Dutch Christmas cookies,” a recipe she found in “LIFE magazine,” one perhaps Grace had also seen, the issue “with Xmas recipes in it.” In the margin Bishop scribbled a further description of these cookies, “Butter Slices.” She noted that they were “marvellous, I must say!” because they were “full of poppy-seeds and filberts (or do you call them Hazel Nuts). “On Christmas Eve,” she reported, “we had a traditional Brazilian dish — French Toast!” This delicacy was served with “your maple syrup. I still have almost a quart.” Bishop surely made that most welcome gift from her aunt last a long time.
(The cover of the 8 December 1961 LIFE magazine cover.
It is probably the issue to which Bishop refers as there is
a section on holiday recipes.)
Finally, Bishop reached the point where she revealed, “I wanted to gossip about Mary and her family … horrid of me!” But if we can’t talk about family, who can we talk about? Her first statement was that “They all seem so RICH to me!” She wondered how they got that way. Mary had spoken about “going to Europe!” That reminded Bishop about her “fellowship,” which  had “to be used for travel,” and told Grace she would go to “Peru and Bolivia” and “another trip to N Y,” echoing what she had been saying for some time: “this time I’ll really get to N S.” To that end, she asked Grace to suggest “the pleasantest place to visit?” And “(while I think of it),” Bishop asked her aunt to “give me Aunt Mabel’s address.” Declaring with a bit of exasperation, “I do hope you get all this now!”

Then back to Mary and her family. Bishop noted that she “didn’t really have much chance to talk to Joanne.” Bishop got the impression that this young woman was “the athletic type” and saw that “she really loves animals.” The former would not have mattered much to Bishop, but the latter inclination gave them something in common. Bishop then mentioned “the little monkey” about which “she was crazy to take back.” If she had “known sooner,” she noted, “I could have arranged it, probably,” meaning she could have got all the papers in place. In any case, it didn’t happen, but the monkey had found a home, which Bishop had reported earlier in the letter.

Clearly, though, Bishop was fondest of Mary’s son John: “I love his looks and that nice grin.” This brief account was the warmest of all her observations about these young people.

When they had been given the opportunity to talk without the Naudins present, Bishop reported that “we all agreed that Ray shouldn’t complain about Brazil the way he does all the time.” Bishop had made this observation before to Grace, so would have been pleased that his in-laws could see the issue themselves. Bishop found this habit “very annoying.” She realized that he was “undoubtedly a clever young man at his business, but I don’t think he has a very nice character.” To her he was “kind of mean,” though quickly she said, “not to E or the children — he’s a good father.” Still, she found him “petty, and always grumbling.” He behaved like “he knows more than he does,” and made “tactless remarks.” Bishop assured her aunt that she “never attempt[ed] to argue with him about anything,” partly because “he knows it all — or so he thinks.”

Then a real piece of gossip: “I got the feeling that Mary wished E had married someone else — although she never said so.” Mary was nothing if not “very polite and discreet.” But, as Bishop suggested, nothing else by way of confessions could be expected because “after all we hadn’t seen each other for thirty years!” (Perhaps the last time Bishop had seen Mary was in 1930 when she and Maude and George went to Montreal to visit the Rosses because Elizabeth Bulmer was there, recently widowed and unwell.)

All this said, Bishop declared that “it was fun having her — she seemed to be interested in everything and enjoys things and that’s what makes a good guest.” Wistfully, however, Bishop noted that “all the time I wished it were you, I’m afraid.” Which made her turn to that next prospective visit to N.S. and them “meet[ing] in Halifax and spend[ing] a few days there” in a hotel.

Suddenly, after over four pages of letter, Bishop declared, “Now I must rush.” She had to “call up LIFE here to cable N Y and ask them where the hell are the proofs they promised for ten days ago.” That dreadful job was still plaguing her. She confessed to her aunt that she thought “they are double-crossing me and the thing is going to appear without any corrections — any last ones, I mean.” Again she wrote, “I spent five weeks doing nothing but fight with them in N Y over their idiotic changes — Not one of them had ever seen Brazil,” Yet these “17 people” believed they “all knew more than I did, — and I’ve lived here ten years and they hired me, after all!” Her final declaration: “They’re mad.”

The well-known story about this book, when it finally was published, is that she made those “last” corrections in green ink in those copies she received and dispersed.

This rambling letter concluded with an extra measure: “Much much love” and an admonition for Grace to “please take care of yourself and forgive me for not getting there.” It seems that it was Bishop who had to forgive herself. She pleaded that she “wasn’t really in my right mind that N Y stretch.” Concluding finally with the fact that she “couldn’t remember anything or see anything, just that damned little book.”

Bishop didn’t wait quite so long to write again to Grace. Her next letter is just over two weeks later and will commence with the next post.

Addendum: 23 May 2019. Leave it to John Barnstead,who found the precise recipe EB mentions in that issue of LIFE.
And a photo of the cookies, which are on the bottom tier of the plate on the right.
John tells me he is going to make the cookies and send me some in the mail!! When I get them, I'll take a photo and post it!!!

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