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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 131: Postscripts

The first postscript in Bishop’s 3 January 1963 letter to her aunt was short and typed upside down on the verso of the letter proper, as if she had flipped the page and added it quickly. The first item referred to that most useful cookbook Grace had sent to her niece for Christmas. Bishop noted that she “found several agreeable drawings of houses and what looks like the score of a game of Canasta.” Clearly, the book was not new, but that didn’t make Bishop appreciate it less. Indeed, perhaps it made her value it more.
The next subject was Elizabeth Naudin and her daughters (still awaiting their Peter Rabbit books, even if they didn’t know it). Bishop declared that she thought her cousin “should have named this last daughter E[lizabeth], too – don’t you?” It might have been her own name, but Bishop still liked it, “and it has been in the family a long time now.” She noted that “Patricia means ‘of noble descent’!!” Bishop concluded at this point that she thought her cousin didn’t “have much of an ear.” She thought “Diane, Suzanne Naudin all those an sounds are very ugly,” though she “wouldn’t mind Susanna, or Diana, nearly as much.” Then with what seems like a silent sigh, Bishop noted, “But then, I suppose I am a poet.”

The next postscript received an official “P.S.,” which was immediately followed by a short sentence, “I’m sending a card to Ruth now.” I am not sure who this person was, but perhaps it was Ruth Hill, one of her mother’s oldest friends from Great Village.

Then the postscript begins in earnest and takes up most of the page. The first item was an acknowledgement that she had “just re-read” her aunt’s letter and hoped “the flu shot works.” I was surprised to read about this shot – I thought flu shots were relatively recent vaccines, not existing as far back as the 1960s. I remember getting booster shots or vaccinations for various things when I was a child in the 60s; but I don’t ever remember getting an annual flu shot until I was an adult. Clearly, Bishop hadn’t had one either because she offered her “theory that living outdoors a lot keeps one from having colds!” At least if she and Lota were any proof. She knew her aunt was headed back to Florida, so further hoped that Grace would “escape the germs better there” in the sunshine and warmth.

The next paragraph returns to one of Bishop’s favourite subjects: Monica, again by declaring this child to be “adorable … just talking, but all in Portuguese.” Bishop confessed that she liked best children “from 8 months to 3 [years].” Monica liked music and “tells us when she wants to listen.” When she and Mary were “up to dinner Saturday night,” they “were listening to Brazilian samba music.” Monica “wriggles in her seat just the right way,” even though “no one ever showed her.” This seemingly innate aptitude caused Elizabeth and Lota to “tease Mary by saying Monica is a ‘Carnival Baby’ – probably true.” Bishop noted that “nine months after Carnival every year there’s a crop of little bastards.”

Monica clearly had Mary, Lota and Elizabeth wrapped around her little finger. Bishop related that when she “wanted us all to lie on the floor and wave our legs in the air with her … we did.” Bishop observed this request came about because she had “just learned the verb ‘lie down’.” As these “three spinsters and little Monica” were “all in a row on the carpet waving our legs,” their “‘butler’ walked in – of course no one heard him knock.” Needless to say, “he looked rather surprised.”

Bishop’s next declaration was a discovery about which she was clearly pleased, concerning “how to keep small children happy on a long drive.” The trick was to “give them one of those little boxes of dry cereal – rice krispies or something.” She discovered that “it takes at least an hour to eat, one by one!”

Back to Elizabeth Naudin, who Bishop noted was “going to Canada in June, I think – or May.” This trip meant an opportunity to send “something light” to her aunt, though she despaired that “there was so little here.” She would also send “a wedding present,” for Joanne, Elizabeth Naudin’s sister – clearly the reason for the trip back to Montreal.

Apropos of nothing, Bishop’s final postscript paragraph was a dash of local colour and culture. She noted that she was just back from going “to the corner to buy some limes.” This errand offered a strange encounter: “hot as hell, and everyone still hanging around in bathing suits, although it is dark.” The truly strange part was that “on the corner [was] a big Christmas tree, a real one, not the N.S. kind, but some kind of fir tree.” It had been “thrown out – losing its needles fast but still smelling a little.” Back to her dislike of the commercialization of Christmas, she noted that “they put up a HUGE figure of Santa Claus here in Copacabana.” This figure was “three stories high – 3 dimensional – awful.” Unequivocally, she declared, “We hate it.” So much so “that last night coming down from the country we seriously thought of shooting it full of bullets,” a definite possibility since “Lota carries a gun in her car.”!!

Adding a bit more context, Bishop wrote that “the ‘Strangers’ Hospital’ (where E had the baby) is right across the street.” She and Lota could see the newspaper report: “Santa Claus badly wounded. Taken to Strangers’ Hospital. He is in rooms number 1o3, 104, 1o5. End of Christmas Foreseen!” (The zeros were made with the lowercase letter o.) They “thought it would be funny.” Bishop was never fond of Christmas and Santa Claus, but this is the most murderous expression of her dislike I have ever read! Poor Santa Claus!
So concluded Bishop’s first letter to her aunt for 1963. Her next letter was written only four days later, prompted by a letter from Grace. The next post will pick up the story.

Click here to see Post 130.

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