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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 55: A new decade begins

Bishop’s first letter of the new year, and another decade, was rather late in the writing and sending, 1 February 1960. She explained to her aunt the reason for the delay: “a bad case of bronchitis for quite a while — it has cleared up now, but I didn’t start the New Year very energetically.” She assured Grace that she had “had a nice Christmas at Cabo Frio,” but this sickness and some other domestic activities had postponed a letter.

For the first time in ages, this brief letter was hand-written. Bishop gives no explanation why, only an acknowledgement that she was “sure you can’t read a word of this so I’ll stop.”

The stationary was also unusual and appears to have been a sort of hand-made affair. Bishop starts the letter with an explanation of the image at its beginning: “Isn’t this lovely? It says LOVE CONQUERS. I think servant girls here must still use this paper — and their boy-friends.” Bishop explained that it could be purchased “in all the stationary stores” and it cost “4¢ each + envelope.”

Bishop knew that she hadn’t “written for a long time” and as a result had forgot “what was going on when I wrote last.” So she caught her aunt up on her news. First was the weather: “the rainiest summer I ever remember here.” As a result, “the roof sprung a leak over the head of my bed.” The occupants of the house had increased: “We now have 3 cats.” One of them was a “Siamese kitten” Lota had acquired. “After awful scenes of jealousy they are all getting along beautifully, giving each other baths.”

As usual, “whenever the weather allows, we have the ‘grandchildren’ up for a swim.” Bishop acknowledged the oddness of two middle-aged women hosting such a brood: “You should see L. & me, each with a small child strangling us from behind, splashing around …[the] swimming hole .... it is very exhausting.” The grandchild who got a story in this letter was one nicknamed “KEEKA,” who was being taught how “to play hide-and-seek”: “He can seek very well, but every time he hides (in L’s bedroom) he runs out & shouts ‘I hid under grandma’s bed!’ We told him it had to be a secret — so finally he would go & hide, rush past us all, & go & shout where he’d hidden … out the door.”

Bishop promised her aunt that “photographs will eventually appear.”

Having given her news, she concluded with a few usual questions: “How are you & are you still working at the Home? Is there lots of snow? Is it very cold?” She signed off with “Lota sends her regards” and “much love,” but then in popped a final bit of news: “We are losing our cook, after 7 years.” While this severing was “more or less mutual, since she has been getting pretty impossible,” they were at a loss, not knowing “what to do next.”

This rather hastily penned epistle was an unassuming start to a new decade, one which would see tremendous change in Bishop’s life, a decade that held the greatest tragedy of her adult life (Lota’s death in 1967). But in the first months of 1960, Bishop was perhaps still preoccupied with and weary from being sick to pay much attention to this temporal shift. It appears that she was slow getting started on much of her correspondence that year. Her first letter to Lowell was written two weeks later, 15 February. One Art’s first letter for this year is to Lloyd Frankenberg, on “22 March (I think),” and she doesn’t get back in touch with Howard Moss, her New Yorker editor, until “May 10?” (seems she was having some trouble keeping track of what day it was).

This somewhat mundane commencement to what will prove to be a momentous decade only goes to prove, we cannot predict the future based on today’s events.

Bishop’s next extant letter was almost two months later, though it appears once again that not all the letters survived. The next post will take up the cook saga and other matters.

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