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

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.

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