"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.


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