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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 140: Stoneware

The next subject in Bishop’s 19/21 April 1963 letter connected her to the past, to her childhood. She enclosed “this card” (now missing), sent from “a friend.” Perhaps it was a postcard because it contained a picture of “salt-glazed stoneware (as it’s called),” which Bishop was sure they “used to have a lot of … around at Gammie’s” – not only dishes, but “even a churn of it?” The Great Village stoneware was “perhaps not this beautiful, but the same sort of thing.” She sent the picture because she wanted to know if Grace had any: “whatever you’ve got – please hold onto it for me!” Bishop then declared, “I love it.” She observed that if she was able to “get back to N S and can come back here by boat I’d like to pick up some things to remind me of my northern origins.” She informed Grace that “they’ve even started making it again in a place near Boston.” Bishop knew this to be so because their friend Mary Morse, who had visited the U.S. recently, “went there … and bought back a pot for herself with a spray of blueberries on it.” But, for Bishop, “the old is still better.”** 
(Vintage American Stoneware butter churn.)
A new paragraph was begun at this point because, as Bishop reported, “We have just this minute heard that the little illegitimate baby has at last been born, and it’s a girl.” That is, the second child that Mary Morse was going to adopt. Bishop noted that they had “Mary’s travelling basket for the baby here [in Rio] all ready & waiting.” Bishop continued that this infant would first be examined by their “own doctor … of course.” She observed that “if all is OK,” then she and Lota “will be taking a four-day old baby up to Petropolis next week-end.”

Bishop suspected that “little Monica is going to be awfully jealous, I’m afraid.” Monica knew about the addition because, as Bishop noted, the child “shows you the baby’s room and bed, etc.” And every time Bishop and Lota arrived, Monica “says ‘Did you bring the baby?’” The child’s name was Martha because “Mary wanted names that sound well with Morse, and also are more or less alike in Portuguese & in English.” She wrote that “Monica is exactly the same,” but Martha was pronounced “Marja, since they have no t-h sound – but it’s close enough.”

Bishop wondered “HOW Mary is going to manage with no help.” But Morse insisted she could, even as she was “looking for a good maid, but they’re hard to find, off in the country.” Scribbled in Bishop’s nearly indecipherable scrawl: “(No washing-machines, etc. – no stores near – well – you managed!).”

Another gap and a quick return to the stoneware, with Bishop just having “noticed – it says this picture – the jug – is a ‘Water-color rendering’.” So real was the effect that Bishop thought it was “a color photograph, didn’t you?”

Yet another gap and a quick update about a family matter – Bishop had “heard from Aunt F[lorence]’s lawyer,” who told her Florence “left whatever she had to the 4 nieces,” of whom Bishop was one. The thing was, Bishop still didn’t “know if she left anything yet.” Bishop suspected that there couldn’t “have been much, certainly.”  She assumed Florence “was just struggling along on that annuity that reverts to Aunt Ruby.”

This long letter was slowly coming to a close, but still two hefty paragraphs covering a range of things remained. The next post will offer the conclusion.


**Note: The only stoneware item that is part of the Bulmer family collection at Acadia University is this soup bowl, part of a set, which is marked on the bottom, “Stoneware J[ohn] T[ams],” which was most likely British in manufacture and of a finer type than the more primitive version Bishop was likely remembering – not that Gammie didn’t have the more primitive type, which was entirely possible, too. 

(Bulmer family stoneware. AUA.)

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