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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 136: Monica and Martha?

Bishop began the next paragraph of her 18 January 1963 letter reporting that Mary Morse’s “aunt died, too.” She was the “same age as Aunt F[lorence].” Mary had to return to the U.S. to “settle the estate,” and left “Monica with us 2 for a month,” as there was “no one else to leave her with.” Monica came with “a little nursemaid, a neighbor – aged 12.” Elizabeth and Lota took this duo “back to Rio.” The main issue this option presented came about because “Nina , the nursemaid, had never been to Rio, seen the ocean, been up in an elevator, etc.” As a result, Bishop noted, “it was almost as bad as having 2 children to take care of.” The other issue: “Nina is very pretty so we were afraid to let her out on the street alone – all the men spoke to her, etc. (Latins, you know!).” The responsibility of taking care of a toddler and an adolescent caused Bishop to observe, “Well – I was wise not to have children, I’ve decided.” Even so, Bishop declared that she “love[d] this baby and she couldn’t be better – so good.” Still, Bishop observed, “I am a NERVOUS mother, -- Great-Aunt, rather.” Tending these two charges for such a stretch meant they were “absolutely exhausted.”

Entertaining ‘dear little Monica” was, actually, easy because “she likes to go swimming more than anything in the world.” Bishop asserted, somewhat unfortunately, that this preference was because of “her Indian blood, I think (they go in many times a day).” Bishop herself loved to swim and observed later in this letter that while she was at Samambaia, “I dip in our little pool once or twice a day,” and Bishop had only white, English blood. Whatever the reason for Monica’s delight, it meant they “put the 2 out on the beach for as many hours as we could without giving them sunstrokes!”

Bishop reported that Monica was “talking a lot – Portuguese, however,” and described her as “tiny, very Brazilian – and such a wonderful disposition – gay all day long – almost never cries.” Once when she “fell and cut her chin,” badly enough that they “thought it needed a stitch,” Monica offered “just two howls, absolutely nothing more.” And, once again, Bishop invoked “an Indian stoic, I guess!” Monica was also smart and liked routine, Bishop noting that “she woke me up about 6 every day.” One morning, this effort included “poking a tiny plastic fork in my mouth.” Monica and Nina were by that time back home and Bishop lamented that “in spite of the work and worry we miss her dreadfully.” Then she reported that Morse was “adopting another – one’s being born this week.” This child, “if it’s a girl,” would be called “Martha.” Bishop reported that she would “probably have to go to Rio on the bus and bring her back in the basket Mary has already prepared.”

Bishop knew that Grace understood all about babies, toddlers and adolescents, observing, “I know full well what you mean when you say your grandchildren tire you!” After a full day of tending, Bishop declared, “I fell into bed at 9:30 many nights – and think I had ‘palpitations’.”

A month of baby sitting meant she was ‘away behind with my own work.” Alone at Samambaia was an attempt “to make up for it.” In Rio, “Lota works so hard, “ so she wouldn’t “even miss me for a week.” Bishop reported with pride that “Lota is doing wonders – and won’t take any pay.” She promised to “send you pictures of her 2-mile long PARK.” The problem with Lota’s “wonders” was that she was “getting too damned important for fun, however.” Bishop told Grace, with what was likely a weary tone, “we both need to get away from Brazilian problems and politics for a while.” The obstacle was that Lota couldn’t “leave while the present governor [Carlos Lacerda] is in office – 2 years to go.”
(The park under construction, 1960s.)
This long letter was coming to a close. Being in the house at Samambaia gave her access to their natural pool, which Bishop described to Grace as “sort of like the Old Rock Hole” on the Great Village River, not far from her grandparents’ house, “only colder.” Being able to bathe in the “just right” temperatures of Samambaia must have made Bishop think of its health benefits, which made her think of Grace: “How is your health? How’s the leg?” And since Grace was in Florida, “How are Aunt Mabel and Hazel – give them my love.” Bishop reported that she had received “a letter from [Aunt] Mary two weeks ago.” Mary’s daughter Joanna was planning to get married later in the year and Bishop wondered out loud, “What shall I send for that wedding.” She confirmed Joanna’s sister, Elizabeth Naudin, was “going back in June,” but Bishop was unclear the exact date of the wedding. Bishop had “suggested Brazilian coffee spoons” as a gift, but cousin “E said oh NO!” which somewhat offended Bishop, “since it was what I gave her.” Bishop thought this response “a bit tactless!” especially since she was “sure she’s used hers here, anyway.”
(Joanne and Frank Eartly on their wedding day. AUA.)
Bishop reported what Grace likely already knew, that Mary was “very pleased with lots of re-painting, etc. – and a possible trip to Europe!” Bishop paused here and noted parenthetically, “(I am feeling awfully bitchy today – but poor Jack [Ross, Mary’s husband] must have carried TERRIFIC insurance!).”

The letter was finally winding down for good with a statement Bishop was known to repeat at other points in her life, that Grace was her “favorite relative” and she hoped her aunt was “well and all was well.” She drifted off with a slight regret that she “never did hear about your bus trip – a letter must have got lost – oh dear.” As always, Bishop signed off  “With much love” and an added desire, “I’d love to see you –”

Only a month passed until Bishop’s next letter to her aunt, dated 19 April 1963. The next post will pick up the narrative with a short treatise on painting.

Click here to see Post 136.

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