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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 54: Aging

Having introduced a lighter tone in her letter of 15 “— or 16th —” February (good to know Bishop could lose track of the days), she continued to offer some entertainment. She admitted directly to Grace that she was offering something “to cheer you up after the gloom of my letter of the other day.” That something was the words to “a new Christmas carol” she had “just learned.” She explained that it was set “to the tune of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ and urgently requested that Grace not “sing it to Aunt Mabel! (or any genteel friends).”

Uncle George and Auntie Mabel
Fainted at the breakfast table.
This should be sufficient warning:
Never do it in the morning.
Ovaltine will set you right,
You can do it evr’y night.
Uncle George is hoping soon
To do it in the afternoon.
O what joys Aunt Mabel’s seen
With the help of Ovaltine.”

Typed beside this offering was “(I didn’t choose the names,” then scribbled in her scrawl, “that’s the way I was taught it.)” Who in Brazil would teach Bishop such a song is a mystery. Bishop’s Aunt Mabel was married to Arthur Bulmer. George was Aunt Maude’s husband. Both were still living, but their spouses not. Clearly, Bishop thought this off-colour version that linked these two unlikely relatives would tickle Grace’s funny bone.

After this “laugh,” Bishop asked: “Do you think the G V home would be a good place to retire to in my old age?” This idea was not the first time Bishop broached such a subject with Grace. The trigger for this particular question at this particular time was the return of Mary Morse. Bishop finally told Grace why this friend has been in the States: Mary had spent “five months” taking care of “her aunt — 86 — and the aunt’s friend who lives with her — 83.” She had “an awful time.” These elderly women were “both semi-invalids and what is worse, almost, they forget everything all the time.” This memory crisis and the fact that “they’re rich, or the aunt is,” meant that “they are in danger of being robbed by their maid, doctor, or anyone who comes along.” Bishop reiterated that Mary “had a terrible time” and confessed, “I don’t think I could have stood it.” She knew her limits because “48 hours with Aunt Florence were more than I could take.” This is the first mention of Florence in some time. Even though it had been years since Bishop last saw Florence, the memory of her visit was clearly vivid.
(Mary Morse and her adopted daughter Monica, late 1950s.)
Bishop continued: “Mary tried to get them into various nursing homes, etc — finally left them the way they were.” I think those of us who tend to elders find these words resonant with our own experiences. Even though Mary had departed, she was still trying to figure out how to help these women. Bishop reported that Mary “brought back a lot of ‘literature’ on nursing homes near N.Y.” and again confessed that she (Bishop) was “reading it with morbid fascination — ‘Where you get loving care’ — etc — or ‘have your own furniture’ — and all so fearfully expensive.”

Bishop, who spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals, sometimes even seeking them out, admitting herself, is expressing an odd aversion to the nursing home idea. But such institutions are rather different from hospitals, which by nature are transient places. Nursing homes speak to the end of one’s life and the fact that one’s family is no longer able to provide care. A different kind of gestalt.

Bishop jumped back to her own and only paternal aunt: “Sometimes I think of poor old Aunt Florence — and no one can possibly love the poor woman.” Bishop’s cousin “Nancy does go in every day, I think (not that that would comfort me much!)” — poor Nancy, too!

Grace knew Florence fairly well and knew how difficult she was, but Bishop persisted in providing proof: “she gets drunk once in a while and calls up her lawyer and tells him he’s ‘ruined’ her and she’ll ‘expose’ him, etc. (not a word of truth in it, of course).” Bishop added, with proper honesty, “I don’t blame her for drinking”; but she knew what could happen as a result: “I’m afraid of accidents.”

Such states of affairs with these women were distant in space and time for Bishop, but hearing Mary’s tale of woe clearly unsettled Bishop and got her thinking of the future. Bishop was just shy of her half-century. Grace was 70 and still working. But neither of them was getting any younger.

After expressing her concerns, Bishop added one of those exasperated sayings, which was actually an oddly prescient declaration (for her, not Grace, who died at 88): “Well, heaven preserve us — and kill us off quick.”

Having got all of that off her mind, she quickly concluded, “I must get to work — If only poetry made more money.” Perhaps realizing that these thoughts and worries, offered with dark humour, might make Grace worry about her, she also quickly assured her aunt: “I am happy and that’s the main thing — even if I don’t deserve to be.” And indeed, she and Lota were still mostly at the house in Samambaia, their relationship still in full bloom. We know what the future was, but Bishop did not, so she signed off without too much care: “Lots of love and take good care of yourself.”

The next post will bring us to the beginning of a new decade.

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