As we all know, living in Keswick is truly a privilege. The landscape is gorgeous, the history is rich, and, for me, the best part are the inhabitants. Sometimes it is easy to overlook some of the harder aspects of the history of our beautiful area….and let’s face it, the realities of some of our behaviors, even today. Mary Carter Bishop grew up in Keswick and is intimately aware of how social structures and mores can damage and divide a family and create a life of secrets and fear.
Mary’s mother, Adria, was the nursemaid for the McIntyre family and it was there she met handsome and steady Early Lee Bishop. Together they forged a life serving another family and living on a tenant farm on the grand Keswick estate of Bridlespur in the 1940s. They continued to live there for 40 years and Mary learned to be careful and quiet when anywhere near the main house. She learned to be wary of the rich and powerful because her family’s livelihood and the roof over their heads absolutely depended on staying in the good graces of their employers. It was a rather feudal arrangement and not uncommon among the very wealthiest of this country. When there is an inequity of power then it is easy to foster resentment and fear. There is a barrier, built on years of expectation and fear, that is difficult to acknowledge and bring down. Mary Bishop gives a beautiful voice to this difficulty and the pain it can cause, and she has honed her skill through years as a talented journalist covering the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she waited until the passing of her mother to tackle and share the personal story of how her mother had had an illegitimate son, Ronnie, who she never acknowledged publicly to those in Keswick. While Ronnie had lived for a short while with Mary and her parents, Mary was told he was her cousin. When Mary learned the truth, years later, that Ronnie was her half-brother, she was forced to face the fact that she didn’t really know her mother at all. She grew up experiencing the love and care of both her parents and so it seemed impossible her mother would alienate her half-brother.
She finally got up the courage to visit with her brother and while it wasn’t the easiest situation, this book has such a lesson in love and forgiveness and acceptance in it. I truly loved this book because it is about how life is hard, and often we are just getting by, doing the best we can. Even the roughest of us, the crassest and bedeviled of us deserve love and to be part of a family. Adria lived her life as best she knew how, perhaps making mistakes and making choices we might not choose but we were not in her shoes, dealing with the fears she felt. And Ronnie had so much in his life that was difficult and hard that I cannot even imagine how he managed to push forward and turn into the man he was. Being institutionalized when he was a young man might have destroyed him, but he was able to rise above it and learn a trade and work hard in a job he enjoyed.
This is a memoir about perseverance and struggle and the heart that beats in the midst of it. There are major issues the author deals with candidly and with grace. The social hierarchy in Keswick created an environment which made life hard for those not in the upper crust of society. There were certain standards expected of the working staff and help, which made it almost impossible for Adria to keep her head held high considering the shame of having an illegitimate child. Yet the irony is, quite a few of the upper crust didn’t quite behave in appropriate ways. As we well know, there is always a lot of “goings on” here in Keswick! The second part of the book really deals with Mary’s relationship with Ronnie and how difficult it was to get past some of the old hurts and resentments Ronnie felt. As they became closer, she started to see how an illness was destroying his life. He lived with so much pain and discomfort, yet no one knew that he was living with an illness. Ronnie was fighting a condition known as acromegaly which caused his features to become deformed and this condition slowly killed him. Mary’s struggle to be there for her half-brother and to heal the old wounds is a beautiful but heart rending one and one I hope everyone in this community will read, because there is both sadness and beauty in this tale and there is a history that begs to be shared!
I am thrilled that Mary Carter Bishop will be coming back to Keswick on October 30th to give a talk at Grace Episcopal Church. Please let the church know if you would like to attend, as all are welcome. It will be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about her life and she will share some things that were not included in the book!