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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 33: Population explosion: the grandchildren visit

The main subject of Bishop’s letter of 12 March 1958 was “the grandchildren.” All four of them had come to Samambaia with their mother to escape the heat and water situation in Rio. Bishop reported to Grace that they were “staying at a little house down below” them, about “½ a mile” away, “thank goodness.” Bishop liked their mother, “a very nice quiet little thing,” who had been trying to cope with a four-month old “adorable” infant and three toddlers, all under five. The mother “said that first of all, when they got their 4 gallons [of water], they washed the children.” This family of little ones were fetched by Lota as soon as she learned of the troubles, “she brought them all up — all car-sick, hot, exhausted, and very yellow, poor little things.” Bishop could happily report, “Now they’re already looking 100% better.”

Knowing Grace had a perennial interest in babies, Bishop gave a full accounting of how things were going. Bishop had visited them just that afternoon, “a walk down the mountain to call on them.” She updated Grace on their demographics: “one boy, Paulo, aged two, very big and fair — surprising here — and shy” and “2 little girls, five and 3½.” The sisters “doted” on their little brother, undoubtedly pretending he was their baby doll: they “tug him around with them all day long, hug him and kiss him.” Bishop noted, undoubtedly with her tongue in her cheek, that “only the 3½  year old” understood “what he says.”

Lota took her grandmotherly duties very seriously. One of the things she brought back with her from New York, in the many boxes and barrels, was “junket tablets,” which she had seen in a grocery store. Something she had never heard of before. “Her idea was to make junket for the children.” Bishop reported that, unfortunately, “Brazilian milk is too poor.” At least their efforts proved unappealing. Bishop asks, rhetorically, “Or does it have to be whole milk?” The milk they could obtain was “so watery,” Bishop explained, she “wasn’t surprised when it wouldn’t work.” While shopping in Petrópolis, however, they bought more milk hoping it would be better. But it, too, failed to produce an edible treat. Bishop wondered if she’d explained to her aunt about the milk: “The milk is always watery — I guess I told you, didn’t I — they call it ‘baptizing’ the milk…”

The next little one to come in for comment was Betty, the cook’s daughter, who turned three on 7 February. Bishop included a photo of her namesake (which does not survive) with her sister, “Alisette Mara — (I don’t know how to spell it, that’s what it sounds like).” Bishop remarked again how “awfully bright” Betty was. Unkindly, she notes that her parents are “stupid,” and that she and Lota were going to “try to get her to school at least.” The new addition was only six months old. Even though space and time made the next bit of information irrelevant to Grace, Bishop couldn’t help but pass on some gossip: “this one looks exactly like our ex-gardener … but really exactly.” Even though it was obvious, Bishop noted that “Lota’s trying to get her courage up to ask Maria … if she didn’t slip a little.”

To round out these accounts, Bishop noted: “Besides all this infant human life, we also have one tiny black puppy.” This new addition was the offspring of their “mongrel dog.” This aging canine (one thinks of Bishop’s poem “Pink Dog”) “is getting quite old, her face is white, and she’s lost some teeth.” In spite of this diminishment, “somehow or other she recently produced this puppy.” As cute as it was, they had “found a home for it.” But Bishop assured Grace that “I won’t let it go until it’s over two months old,” a kindness and caution she undoubtedly learned in rural Nova Scotia during her childhood. She did report that it was “six weeks” old and, with a smile on her face, for sure, already “housebroken — that is, it comes in the house without fail, to go to the bathroom.”

(Parrot at house at Samambaia, during my 1999 trip to Brazi)

The next post will return to a subject close to Bishop’s heart, her translation of Mina Vida de Menina.

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