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

Monday, July 26, 2021

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 151: Life in the Village, 1947, Grace to Elizabeth 2

Grace’s letter continued to offer memories of Gertrude’s time as a teacher, “She [Gertrude] was teaching at Valley Road, a God forsaken place in Cum[berland] Co[unty] & she boarded with Aunt Hannah, Father’s sister, 3 miles from her school.” 

Aunt Hannah was Hannah Lee Bulmer Brenton Eaton, who was born 21 June 1837 in Williamsdale, N.S. She married Thomas Brenton in 1861 and then John W. Eaton in 1891. She was the third oldest child in the family, that is, one of William Bulmer’s older sisters. 

Even today, Valley Road is an extremely isolated area, the closest town is Oxford, N.S. I was in that area only once, taken there by Phyllis Sutherland (Grace’s daughter). It felt like we drove and drove for a long time through deep woods with few houses. One can only imagine what it was like at the turn of the twentieth century, before automobiles. 

Grace continued: “It was through the woods & I guess it was a lonesome walk, so she got the little dog King for company.” In “Homesickness” this male dog is transformed into Juno, “a big hound bitch, her coat just a few shades darker than the earth of the road.” (EAP 188) A female dog was not pure fiction, as Grace continued to explain in the letter: “Art had two [of] them ‘King’ the little black fellow & Queen* a little light bull dog.” These pets had their own story, “You probably remember Maud telling about them, how they would sit on each side of the organ & howl when she played.” 

The Bulmers always had dogs and cats and there were favourites during Bishop’s time in Great Village in the 1910s. King and Queen did not survive to Bishop’s time, as Grace reported in the letter: “Some dirty son of a so-so poisoned them.” 

Before leaving this part of the story, Grace observed, “I really don’t know much about that place,” meaning Valley Road. Travelling to those ancestral places was not something the Bulmers did often. Gertrude taught there for a couple of terms.

Grace had stronger memories of Gertrude teaching at Economy Point, which was her next job. For all readers of EB’s poetry, this place is iconic from “The Moose”: “Lower, Middle, Upper” Economy. There is also an Economy Point and Economy Falls. This cluster of Economies is to the northwest of Great Village along the road that runs through to Parrsboro. 

Grace gave an account of her memory of one particular event during Gertrude’s time there: “That was the year Mary was born [1900] & your mother took me down for a visit to ease the situation at home. We had a maid from Eastville at the time and I had been sleeping with her. Anyway after I had been there a few days, your mother discerned I was good & lousy. She got them in her long hair & I was kind enough to give them to nearly every one in the school.”

(Gertrude Bulmer, circa 1900,

standing in front of the Hill house

in Great Village, N.S. Ruth Hill was Gertrude's

best friend during girlhood. AUA)

Grace then recalled that “the next term she went to Mira in C[ape] B[reton] where she only stayed part of the term.” I was most interested to read this sentence. I knew Gertrude had taught briefly in Cape Breton, at a school where the children only spoke Gaelic. But I didn’t know the location. Mira is on the west side of the island and in the Gaelic heart of the region. 

Grace closes this part of her letter with a dose of encouragement for her niece: “I am glad you are going to write about N.S. Some of the old folks I remember are so original, they should be in a book. I would love to tell you all I know about them. I always wanted to write stories like [Joseph Crosby] Lincoln** wrote about Cape Cod. G.V. people are just as funny.” Bishop would likely have written her G.V. stories regardless, but how lovely that she had Grace’s urging. 

Grace then shifts gears towards urging Bishop to visit and tempting to do so by telling her more about home. More in the next post. 

Click here to see Post 150.


*Arthur and Mabel Bulmer, like so many others in Nova Scotia in the late 1890s were strong anglophiles. Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia” shows that the family hung elaborate chromographs of the royal family on their walls. So, it wasn’t surprising that their dogs were monikered with such regal names. 

**With her keen interest in and time spent at Cape Cod, Bishop undoubtedly knew exactly who Grace was referring to. More about Joseph Crosby Lincoln can be found by clicking here.

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