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

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.

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