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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 27 – Friends, Neighbours, & Strange Folks

Christmas continued into 1957 for Elizabeth and Lota. In the 10 January letter, Bishop tells Aunt Grace that “a crate just came this afternoon from a woman we know in São Paulo.” This friend was a wealthy coffee plantation owner, who had wanted Bishop “to translate her life story she’d written!” Bishop managed to bow out, perhaps because she “found another American here to do it for her.” By way of a thank you, however, this woman “sent me a huge sack — like a potato bag” (something Grace would be very familiar with) “full of coffee beans,” “about 20 pounds.” Bizarrely, Bishop declares that they had “no mill … to grind it,” so they would “have to buy one tomorrow.” Remember, this letter was written from Rio. Presumably, they had such a device at the house in Samambaia. Bishop declared that the coffee was “marvellous … like nothing you’ve ever tasted.”

Bishop then tells Grace about Lota’s friend Alfred, “who visits us quite often,” and was there “for a stay.” Bishop described him as “a writer, more or less,” “separated from his wife” and living alone. He was “in terrible shape, poor dear,” not eating right, “etc., etc.” He liked coffee, so visited “just about every hour on the hour” with his thermos. To make him even stranger, Bishop scribbled in the margin, “He’s rich, but unhappy — a graduate of Princeton, so speaks English — perfect English, too.” Even with “a daughter of 22, & a son of 16,” he was very lonely. Bishop also had “to give him an injection every day.” For what, she does not say.

Another neighbour, this one in the country, offered much more delight. He owned land “next to Lota’s” in Samambaia and raised orchids. Bishop described his green houses, filled with “thousands of pots … each green house … a little further along and a little bigger, just like a school for orchids — until you get to the top class, when they’re in bloom.” He showed his orchids at “a big flower show” that was held annually in a hotel in Pétropolis, “and he usually gets some blue ribbons.” The most spectacular of his orchids, Bishop reported, “was just like a waterfall — an enormous pot, the plant about three feet high, with 12 cascades of small white orchids … each spray about 18 inches long — pure white with a tiny yellow spot.” As soon as Lota saw it, she went back to the house to get Bishop. “I’ve never seen such a gorgeous plant, really,” Bishop declared. Bishop noted that their neighbour had “been offered about $200 for it.” Having such a neighbour had its benefits. For one thing, “any time we feel like it we can go through his orchid houses.” And “at Christmas his truck came up with four beautiful gloxinias all in bloom” and “four big begonias.” Clearly, he grew more than orchids.

The orchid man came up in the letter because Grace had written something about a very showy flower called “Bird of Paradise,” which Bishop thought could also be found in Brazil, the flower that “looks like a cockatoo’s crest?” This comment then launched Bishop into the orchids.
Having exhausted quite a few topics in this inaugural letter of 1957, Bishop makes a few passing comments about a couple of strange subjects:

“‘The Ten Commandments’ sounds awful.” Clearly, Grace had seen this Cecil B. DeMille epic, but that didn’t stop Bishop from “enclosing a review of it by a funny friend of mine in the U.S.” It would be interesting to know who this was. Perhaps a review in The New Yorker?
"I just heard that [Anthony] Eden’s resigned,” though she wasn’t sure “whether he did it himself or was forced to,” because she had not seen the papers. “Poor England … But I think the U.S. handled that very badly, too, and that [John Foster] Dulles is a damned fool.”
(Anthony Eden)
 (John Foster Dulles)
She concluded her letter, with her love and a little scribble, “I hope to see you in 1957.” Which indeed happened. The next post will address a gap in their correspondence and the first letter that followed it.

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