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

Friday, November 27, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 149: Houses, poems & more

After the two deeply personal family issues that comprise the bulk of Bishop’s 3 August 1963 letter to her aunt, she began a slow wind-down, still focused on various family and domestic matters. 

Grace had taken to heart Bishop’s query in a previous letter about possible houses available in Great Village and had sent along “information about the houses,” for which Bishop thanked her aunt. Bishop had already indicated to Grace that this desire for a house in Nova Scotia was “just a wild day-dream of mine,” reiterating it again. That said, Bishop thought “several of them sounded good,” good enough that she was “awfully tempted to write about them.” But concluded quickly, “it’s crazy.” She felt that one day she would “get back again,” and then she would “go there and look around.” She was especially interested in “the old Angus Fulmore house!” Her preference was for “something old, and with one of those heavenly peaceful views.” She also wanted “as much land as possible – I’d want a cow, some ducks! – and a pig or two.”

(Great Village from Hustler Hill, with St. James Church
in centre of view.)

As unlikely as it might be, Bishop still thought “it may happen yet” because they were “getting fed up with Brazil in many ways.” She couldn’t say “what will happen politically.” She was thankful to her aunt for sending the information, “it is nice to have those places to think about.” Indeed, she told Grace that she remembered “most of them, I think.” 

With only a dash for a pause, she then reported, “I have three N S poems on the fire now – and a new short one about the painting – IF it turns out all right,” revealing that indeed the receipt of the painting had instantly triggered not only the idea for but the actual start of “Poem.” 

As nice as all this poetry was, Bishop quickly noted that she was “too hard up again to be dreaming about real estate,” confessing that she had “dug into that fellowship that was supposed to be for travel only,” guessing “they’ll be lenient.” This fellowship was likely from the Chapelbrook Foundation. She was awarded one in 1960, so she had held onto it for some time. 

Then a quick gear shift to one of her perennial concerns: “What you say about Miriam sounds awfully good to me.” Bishop asked the child’s age (just over two) and editorialized, “In the world as I see it right now – rather gloomily, I’m afraid – being slightly retarded [“oh dear,” as Bishop was wont to say] won’t make the slightest difference.” In Bishop’s view, “no one will ever notice at all!” Indeed, she felt that Miriam “may even catch up, or be very good at one thing – who knows.” It must be remembered that it was 1963 and cultural views of people with learning and cognitive challenges were significantly different. Bishop’s unfortunate language and assessment was, sadly, the norm. She quickly added, “I’m sure Phyllis is a good ma.”

The remainder of the letter was a series of short paragraphs that flitted about various subjects. A brief commentary on the weather and seasons followed. It being August, Bishop wondered if it was “strawberry season” in Nova Scotia (a bit past by that point). In Brazil it was, of course, winter, one that hadn’t been cold, only “a few cold spells, but since we’ve been in Rio all the time we’ve scarcely noticed it.” Indeed, Bishop observed that she had “been swimming off and on all ‘winter’.” 

The next two-line paragraph asked, “What’s the matter with Hazel’s back?” meaning her cousin Hazel Bulmer Snow. Bishop then asked Grace to “remember me” to this cousin, “Aunt Mabel, wherever she is,” and also to “the Leightons [sic: Laytons] and Ruth Hill.” The latter was her mother’s best friend in childhood. 

Grace had told Bishop about a new “fur jacket,” which sounded “very swell,” to her niece. When Bishop had been last in New York, she wrote, “I borrowed a fur coat,” which “had been a beautiful one, but was falling apart.” She remembered that “once in a restaurant I threw it back over the chair and revealed two huge safety pins holding the sides together.” 

The penultimate paragraph shifted to her paternal side by observing that she had yet to hear “a word about Aunt Florence’s ‘estate’ – if any – for months.” When she had last heard, “in early June,” from her Bishop cousin Nancy, her “husband was very sick in the hospital.” Since then, “not a word.”  She reported to Grace that “they are all fighting … about whether what is left of the Bishop Co. should fold up or not.” She observed with no irony and much relief that she was “glad I’m far away,” and noted that she was “the only B[ishop] left,” scribbling in the margin, “(thank goodness).” 

The final paragraph quickly concluded with Bishop’s plan to “write lots of notes telling people why I haven’t written.” Elizabeth Naudin had passed on Aunt Mary’s observation that Grace was ‘looking awfully well” when they had seen each other. So, Bishop hoped that her beloved aunt was actually “feeling that way.” She urged Grace to “please write soon and repeat anything I should have known from the missing letter.” Concluding, as usual, with “Lots of love.” 

Bishop’s next letter, a substantial epistle, was not written until late September. The next post will begin to account for it. 

Click here to see Post 148.


Friday, November 20, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 148: “Poem”

Bishop’s late July encounter with Elizabeth Naudin – which triggered her account of the tensions between them in her 3 August 1963 letter – had been prompted by a gift from Aunt Mary that Naudin was commissioned to deliver: “Mary sent me a little painting by Uncle George [Hutchinson] (I’m sure – It isn’t signed, but it must be).” This painting was none other than that which is now routinely called the “Poem” painting. Bishop was always open to receiving any and all family treasures that her aunts were willing to part with. The receipt of this special gift immediately triggered a response, the language of which formed a core of the poem she wrote years later: “tiny, a long shape – adorable – Do you remember it?” It is as if the poem was already starting to clarify, in proto-form: “it is really awfully good – just a little sketch.” Bishop acknowledged unequivocally: “I am crazy about it.” Then added more prescient poem phrasing: “I think it must be Nova Scotia – there is a brown house, the other white.” For Bishop it “looks like N S” because she had never seen “that kind of brown house anywhere else!” she was clearly thrilled, this painting cutting through all the frustration and disappointment she had felt because of her cousin’s behaviour. Bishop asked Grace: “Do you know anything about it?”

It must be remembered that this painting would have initially been in her grandparents’ home – a painting done by George W. Hutchinson perhaps in 1898 when he spent nearly a year in NS. The Bulmer family home, humble as it was, was filled with artwork done by GWH and Maude Shepherdson (as well as other painters – e.g., the portraits of Arthur and Gertrude that hung there were done by a now unknown itinerant painter). Bishop grew up looking at walls covered with this kind of creativity. Mary was not known for being generous, so that she passed on one of Hutchinson’s painting was, in a word, a big deal. Mary had inherited a number of Hutchinson paintings after Elizabeth Bulmer died in 1931. The person who ended up with most of them after Mary died was Elizabeth Naudin (which makes me wonder if she was a bit annoyed that her mother was giving away some of her family inheritance).

Bishop declared to her aunt: “I am awfully glad to have it.” And she noted that the only thing connected to George Hutchinson that she had was “that photograph of him and ‘dear Lily’ you sent me.” Lily was Lily Yerbury, Hutchinson’s second wife. Bishop knew something of Hutchison’s life, knew he had returned to Nova Scotia from England at some point. Scrawled in the left margin of the letter was another question: “Do you know what year G.H. was back in N.S.? – around 1900?” 

(George W. Hutchinson and Lily Yerbury Hutchinson,

circa 1920s. AUA.) 

Having this little painting made her want more: ‘I’m wondering if sometime I could have the one Aunt Maud [sic] used to have over the bookcase for so long.” This painting was also likely of Great Village: “a bigger, rectangular one – a stormy sky, trees, water, too – remember it?” She imagined that “Uncle George [Shepherdson] has it.” It was a painting she “always liked very much.” Though she wondered if George Shepherdson had “given it or promised it to someone else.” Quickly, she added, “I don’t want to be greedy – but I have nothing of his [GWH], (until M sent this one) nor of Aunt Maude’s.”

Shortly after this yearning, Bishop typed: “I wonder how Uncle George [Shepherdson] is?” Even after all the years that had passed, even after all the abuse she suffered from his hand, Bishop still wondered about this problematic relative. She thought “perhaps [Grace] said in the letter that got lost” how he was doing. In the end, Bishop simply labelled him, with some small degree of pity, if not sympathy, “poor old guy.”

Before she moved on to the next part of the letter, she reported to her aunt that while the Naudins were in Montreal for the family wedding, “they found out …. What was ailing little Patricia – cortisone taken the wrong way”. Bishop hoped that “maybe now she’ll be all right.” And then she told Grace that the Naudins were heading “to Porto Alegre to live, next week sometime.” She told her aunt that this “big city” was “south quite a way,” a place she had “never been,” and concluded, “perhaps a better climate for the baby.”

The next post will pick up the final subjects of this important letter, including more nostalgia for the North.

Click here to see Post 147.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 147: Family tensions

Bishop’s next paragraph in the 3 August 1963 letter broached a delicate family matter, but since Grace understood the context (or at least could probably guess it), Bishop was not explicit. Rather, she wrote around it, assuming her aunt understood. 

Bishop confirmed that she had a letter from Grace dated 15 August, “but oh dear the one before that must have got lost.” Bishop’s preoccupation with Lota’s operation and recovery may have been a factor in the lost thread – if the letter had been delivered at all (which is not clear). Bishop hated missing any of Grace’s letters. In that 15 July letter, her aunt had referred to “one in which you spoke about Suzanne” (that is, Elizabeth and Ray Naudin’s oldest child). This reference is what made Bishop realize that one of Grace’s letters had not reached her: “I didn’t get that [one].”

In her May letter to Grace, Bishop had expressed frustration with Elizabeth Naudin. Realizing that Grace had written about her cousin in the last letter made Bishop reflect: “I shouldn’t have said anything, I suppose, even to you.” That said, Bishop respected her aunt and noted that she still would have liked “to know what you think,” that is, she wanted to know what Grace had written about this subject. Sometimes the significant space-time between these exchanges created gaps that could not be bridged. 

Bishop then reported that her cousin “got back in the middle of my hospital stay and called up.” The Naudins had gone to Montreal to attend Joanne Ross’s wedding. Part of the reason Elizabeth Naudin had made contact was because Aunt Mary had sent Bishop something via her daughter (more about this something in the next post). Bishop told her aunt that she wasn’t able “to see her until two days ago.” 

Clearly, the reunion had not gone well, though Bishop does not give the details. All she was willing to share was her feelings, starting by observing that she had “a very high boiling point, you know.” The issues between these cousins had been on-going, Bishop reiterating that “it takes me a long time, years sometimes, to get really angry.” Her tolerance and patience and benefit of the doubt had run out, for some undisclosed reason. Bishop declared that she was now “ANGRY” to the point where she was “not going to see her again and that’s that.” When the high threshold was breached, Bishop noted “I’m afraid I stay that way.”

Grace would surely have wanted to know the details, but Bishop was wary of putting them on paper (and perhaps it was too complicated to explain). She said only that “when I see you I’ll tell you about it.” Even writing this much seemed too sensitive to Bishop, so she asked her aunt to “Please say nothing at all to Mary, naturally.” Bishop had already written Aunt Mary “a note, but said nothing.” Bishop concluded, about her own role in the matter, that she was “weak-minded, that’s all – one of my big troubles!” And ended the subject with “enough is enough.”

Bishop shook off that unpleasant report and for the rest of the letter focused on a range of subjects (all for the next posts). When she reached the end of the letter on the second page, however, she realized she was not quite done with the upsetting subject. She turned the second page upside down and typed a short paragraph about her cousin and their severing. First, she expressed her regret: “I’m awfully sorry about the E business.” She reported to Grace what her aunt likely knew, that the Naudins were “going away from Rio,” that is, moving; in the end, the distance meant “it will be all right.” Most importantly, it meant “Mary need never know.”

Bishop observed that this young cousin “has never really liked me, I feel, -- or something – maybe she doesn’t like anybody.” Something else had happened though, as Bishop then wrote with clear exasperation: “there are some things I just can’t take.” A hint of what might have caused tension from Elizabeth Naudin’s point of view is Bishop assuring her aunt that she “never once said anything critical to her – held my tongue always.” Bishop appreciated her cousin’s children and gently noted, “I did like seeing the little girls.” In the end, Bishop chalks up the division thus: “We have nothing in common, of course.” As Bishop’s letters to Grace reveal she “offered” frequent “invitations, introductions etc.” But her cousin “refused every” one of them, “always.”

Bishop’s benefit of the doubt had her think at one point that her cousin “might be timid – but no – I don’t think its that.” And then the final quick comment that perhaps was a direct clue to the source of the tension: “And he’s always been rude and aggressive – from the start.” That is, Ray Naudin.

(Thomas Travisano, Elizabeth Naudin, Phyllis Sutherland,
Sandra Barry, circa 2000. At Phyllis's home
in Balfron, N.S.)

Decades later, when I met Elizabeth and Ray Naudin, there was no hint of this tension. The Naudins seemed genuinely interested in their famous relative who was getting so much attention in the literary world. Certainly, with respect to her maternal family history, Elizabeth Naudin possessed a significant material part of it: a small gallery of George W. Hutchinson paintings, including “Large Bad Picture.” These paintings were inherited by the “little girls” after the Naudins died. All this said, I did learn from Phyllis Sutherland that the Naudins possessed a sense of their stature in the world, which didn’t always sit well with Phyllis. Well, this kind of dynamic happens in most families. What it says to me is that Bishop remained actively involved in family dynamics throughout her life, even when she was far away in Brazil and could easily have dispensed with it all.

The next post picks up the gift, an important gift, that Mary sent to Bishop.

Click here to see Post 146.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 146: Lota’s operation

Bishop’s 3 August 1963 letter to her aunt is a dense, two-pager, which will require several posts to work through. The subjects are primarily domestic and family, which means complicated. Even though her previous letter was written only a month before (about the average time between letters for Bishop), she noted that it felt “as if I hadn’t written you for a long time.” That feeling was, she determined, “because so much has been happening,” especially in the past two weeks: “Two weeks ago today Lota was operated on for an intestinal occlusion.” She had been discharged only “two days ago.” 

Bishop then offered Grace, a retired nurse, an account of the whole process, which started with “stomach upset.” Bishop observed that Lota had experienced this condition “once or twice lately, vomiting.” They chalked it up to her “being overtired” from all the busy, stressful work on the Rio park. The difference “this time” was “the vomiting didn’t stop.” She went for “X rays the 2nd day” and was “rushed off to the hospital.” This issue was serious, causing the indomitable Lota to be “fed intravenously,” which required “a tube in her poor nose for about eight days.” Bishop’s comment about this intervention: “Poor thing, it was tough.” All was well now: “she’s fine but naturally tired,” and was still sporting “a huge bundle of bandages” and “all the stiches in.”

(Lota on right, at a meeting about the park, early 1960s.)

Bishop had only praise for the hospital, which she described as “excellent and so were the doctors.” It was standard practice to “let someone – or want someone, called the ‘acompaniente’ – to stay – so I stayed, along with the nurse.” Bishop slept in the large room for “a week.” She conceded that the whole ordeal was “an awful scare for a few days.” 

One of her big tasks was “to keep ALL visitors away except me and one or two close friends.” And now that they were back home, at their apartment, this job became even more difficult: “Brazilians treat a sickness like a party – or like a wake.” It kept Bishop and the maid “running all day long fending off callers, serving hundreds of little coffees.” Or so it seemed to Bishop. And all this “getting rid of people” had to be done “tactfully.” 

After the ordeal, Bishop hoped that Lota would be “made to rest for a month.” Bishop reiterated that the cause of it all was “mostly because of overwork, I suspect.” But Lota was already gearing up again, as Bishop wrote, “yesterday she had her secretary here and dictated letters – oh dear.” 

Bishop noted that it had been a “good thing … it happened here instead of in New York – where it would have cost a fortune.” Then Bishop confessed to Grace that she “lied to her [Lota] for 24 hours or so (the Dr. said to),” telling her “she wasn’t going to have an operation.” But barely “half an hour” before the surgery, “the nun came in and asked her, ‘Daughter, do you believe in God?’” The “very anti-church” Lota replied, “More or less, sister.” Then she turned to Bishop and declared, “Well, you can’t fool me any longer, after that!” 

Bishop quickly observed that Lota “was very brave, -- I must say.” Scribbled in the left-hand margin next to this long paragraph, Bishop wrote: “9 people visited with me all through the operation! 2 ½ hrs.” 

They had some support from “our best friend, Mary Morse,” who came to Rio “from Petropolis with her two adopted babies.” Grace would have remembered Monica, who was “almost 3 now.” The second child was only “3 months.” Bishop’s word for these children: “darlings!” As much as she adored these babies, however, she observed to Grace: “I know what you mean about small children!” 

Adding them to the mix in the household when she “was tired from all the hospital business” was a challenge. Monica was active and just as Bishop “had barely got to sleep,” the child “was pounding at the door saying, ‘Open the door, Aunt Elizabeth – I want to say good-morning to the canary’.” Not to mention her “jumping up & down on top of” Bishop. As soon as Lota left the hospital, “Mary went to stay with friends.” Having them all together in the apartment “would be too much for an invalid.” 

After this dramatic and detailed account, Bishop quickly concluded, “all is fine now and everyone recovering.” 

The next subject Bishop broached concerned a stressful and delicate family matter. The next post will pick up this reveal. 

Click here to see Post 145.