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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 51: Marjorie

The disquistion on jaboticaba and pitanga jelly finished (and thanks to John for finding so many videos to augment Bishop’s words), Bishop turned to a much more serious subject in her 12 November 1959 letter: “I’ve had some very bad news — my friend Marjorie [Carr Stevens] died unexpectedly — at least to me, and most of her friends, I think — on October 21st.” All the dashes suggest the difficulty of relating this shock. It is as if the previous paragraphs were a means to avoid telling the most important thing she had to tell.

Marjorie and Elizabeth met in Florida in 1941. Marjorie was married but separated from her husband. They moved in together and were a couple for some time. They travelled to Mexico in 1942 and in 1947 to Nova Scotia. Even after the intimate relationship ended, they remained good friends. Marjorie met Grace in 1947 and when Grace spent time in Florida during the 1950s (with Aunt Mabel and her daughter Hazel), she and Marjorie saw each other again. I wrote about this connection in post # 35.
(Marjorie on the right, with Pauline Hemmingway, Key West, 1940s.)
Bishop knew that Grace would be sad about this premature death. Marjorie “was just 50, I think,” Bishop noted. The root of  this death was her “long history of tuberculosis,” a condition about which Grace knew. Bishop reported that Marjorie had “recovered — cured herself — several times.” This resilience had made Bishop decide “she was tough.” Marjorie had revealed to Bishop in letters that “she had been having ‘asthma’ … increasingly the last two years,” a condition Bishop was all too familiar with, and one that caused her concern. The immediate trigger for this death was, however, travel.

She told Grace that Marjorie had gone “to Guatamala for her vacation.” The problem was the “unpressurized plane & discovered it too late, and had a severe attack.” This attack “injured her heart badly.” Another reason for the asthmatic Bishop to fear flying (even modern airplanes offer health risks that we tend not to regard with much concern, so ubiquitous is flying).
 (Marjorie Carr Steven’s passport application, 1941.)
One of Marjorie’s brothers and their mutual friend Jane Dewey were the sources of Bishop’s information, so she knew that Marjorie was travelling with a friend, “an old lady who was taking her — it must have been hell for her.” After leaving Central America, they “went to Nassau, to try sea-level.” Sadly, it didn’t help, “Marjorie got worse.” Then she went into hospital “to try an oxygen tent and died a day later.”

Bishop reported that Marjorie “had planned” to visit Brazil that very April, “and she wanted to come so much.” Bishop summarized Marjorie’s situation for her aunt, saying that her friend “hadn’t really had much fun in her life, although she enjoyed things so much — a dreary husband (and I never could stand her family, either!).” Grace might not have felt as upset as Bishop, but she and Marjorie had clearly connected, “Marjorie liked you very much and always asked about you, almost every letter.”

Bishop had known so much loss by this time in her life, but there is something unsettling about losing a contemporary, a dear friend with whom one has shared a deep and abiding  connection, that is disruptive to one’s system. It haunts. Elizabeth and Marjorie had “been friends for more than twenty years.” Their friendship had been confined to letters for more than a decade, but for Bishop, correspondence was not a distant mode of contact, even if letters crossed thousands of miles. Even so, she confessed to her aunt, “I can’t seem to take it in very well yet — I suppose because I live so far away.”

After this sombre subject, Bishop quickly turned back to a more pleasant topic: a trip to Cabo Frio for the holidays. The next post will conclude this letter.

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