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

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 31 – There is always weather, 1958 begins

Bishop’s first letter to Grace in 1958 is dated 12 March. There were perhaps others, but this long missive appears to be a catch-up, filling in a gap that occurred because Bishop was flat out busy. This letter will require several posts, as it is packed with detailed accounts of various people, activities and situations. Even with gaps, sometimes lengthy, Bishop’s letters simply launch into her side of the dialogue, knowing that Grace was as eager to hear her news as she was to hear Grace’s.

Bishop began the letter with a typical declaration, “I’ve been very bad about writing lately,” acknowledging that she had one of Grace’s in hand, unanswered, a letter that had included a photograph of Hazel Bulmer Snow’s house in Hollywood, Florida, where Grace was still staying. “It looks very nice and pleasant.” Though unsure if Grace was still there (she was), Bishop took that possibility to launch into a commentary about the weather (so typical of Maritimers, who might be called “weather obsessed”).

The winter of 1958 was a bad one, if Bishop’s observations are a clue. “You certainly chose the worst winter,” to be in Florida, “one of the coldest they’ve ever had.” Bishop knew this all the way in Brazil because she was reading American papers. She was sorry for Grace about this timing, because, as a rule, “it can be so nice in Florida in February — bright and up in the 80’s and no rain.”

As bad as it was in Florida, Bishop somehow knew it was “an awful winter” in Nova Scotia. How she knew this isn’t clear, but she remarked that “my friends in N.Y. have been seeing northern lights, and they’ve had to use ice breakers in N.Y. harbor.” So, as cold as Florida might have been, at least Grace had some sort of “escape” from the worst, farther north.

This kind of extreme weather occurs periodically, and most recently in the winter of 2015, which again caused N.Y. harbor to freeze solid:
And brought the Northern Lights as far south at the northern US:
If it was cold in the north, it was hot in the south, “Here, or at least in Rio,” Bishop noted, “it’s been the hottest summer ever on record,” with the temperature reaching 105F a few times. Bishop reported, “Lota tells me it’s sun spots, making these extremes, and maybe she’s right.” The spots would certainly have triggered the aurora borealis, but perhaps what was starting to manifest was what most scientists now call the chaos of climate change.
Bishop had been able to stay away from Rio, remain at the house in Samambaia; but Lota had been back and forth steadily for various reasons, “and she minds the heat much more than I do,” Bishop observed.

Another issue in Rio was water, or the lack of it: “there has been no water in some sections of Rio for months,” Bishop reported. Most places had water, but only “for an hour or two a day.” Bishop does not explain the cause of this shortage, but its affect was to trigger a visit from all of Lota’s “grandchildren” and their mother (an account of this visit is for another post).

In the midst of her lively reporting of the happenings around her, Bishop interjected an announcement, perhaps because it had happened while she was composing the letter: “I had a wonderful letter from Aunt Mable [sic].” Sadly, Bishop’s letters to this aunt did not survive. Mabel is vividly described in Bishop’s “Memories of Uncle Neddy,” a woman Bishop was not particularly close to, but even so, she clearly welcomed this epistle: “The first paragraph or two she hadn’t hit her stride,” Bishop observed, “then she really did, and she does write wonderful letters!” Writing a good letter was an admirable achievement in Bishop’s mind, and she had pretty high standards.

The next post will offer the first “happening” of 1958.

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