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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 30 – Back in Brazil: Bureaucracy and Babies

If Elizabeth and Lota had been busy in the final weeks of their stay in the US, they were even busier once they returned to Brazil. Bishop’s next extant letter to Grace is dated 11 December 1957. If others were written and sent, they no longer survive. Undoubtedly, Bishop did let Grace know when they were safely back in Brazil, but perhaps it was just a postcard, which vanished into time’s vast vaults. These vaults hold many lost and forgotten communications. Even so, it might have taken Bishop that long to settle down enough to write, the prompt of approaching Christmas bringing her to the letter she perhaps had wanted to write all along.

Another issue in the delay was Brazilian bureaucracy. After expressing her hope that her missive would reach Grace “in time for your Christmas,” in spite of the “slow mails” at “this time of year,” Bishop informed her aunt that her delay was partly because she was “waiting for my Christmas cards that I bought in New York to show up!” But they, along with much else, were “still in the customs … and now they’ll have to wait until next Christmas.”

Since returning, Elizabeth and Lota had been trying to free their many boxes and barrels from Brazilian customs. Bishop noted, “Poor Lota has been to Rio three times now and still half our stuff is there.” They both had to make another trek “next week” to keep at the bureaucrats, who had, “at one point … lost all our papers — including both our passports!” Bishop’s word for this slog was “maddening.”

After being away for months, Lota’s family had its own demands. Bishop wrote that the “two oldest ‘grandchildren’” were visiting. Old being a relative term: “aged 3 and 4½.” Their mother had just had her fourth child, another girl, so the older siblings needed tending. The newborn was named after Lota, “‘Maria Carlota’  and nicknamed ‘Lotinha’, or ‘Little Lota’.” If these toddlers weren’t enough, “the cook’s new baby is here, too … three months [old].” As well as Betty (Bishop’s namesake), who would be three in February. Bishop acknowledged the “big responsibility” these little ones brought to Lota. Musing on the nursery that surrounded her, Bishop wrote, “You’d think that two old maids could avoid all this fuss about little shoes, cod liver oil, bowel movements, haircuts, etc. — but apparently not!”

The straw on the camel’s back of all this activity was the “horrible weather since we’ve been back.” So bad was it that Bishop could count the sunny days on one hand: “exactly three sunny days so far.” The “pouring rain” meant the children were more or less housebound: “You should hear me trying to tell stories in Portuguese!”

Winding down her letter, Bishop apologized for its poor quality, “but I think you owe me one.” Her brief epistle was meant to carry the “small present” (the usual money, with an echo of her previous claim that it would have been bigger “if I weren’t so broke after my N.Y. trip”).

Suddenly realizing that she had forgotten an important update, she added, “I love having the pictures.” The grandchildren were intrigued by them, too. They “think they’re my mother and father, and asked all about them.” When Helena asked, “What did they die of?” Bishop directed her, “go and ask your Grandmother … so she went and asked Lota.”

One thing that becomes clear in this letter is that Grace was back in the US, in Florida. In Hollywood, FL, to be exact, where Hazel Bulmer Snow lived. Hazel was Arthur and Mabel Bulmer’s daughter, so another of Grace’s nieces.
Hazel had been living in Florida for some time. Mabel, a widow of five years, was spending the winter with her daughter. Grace joined them. Clearly, Grace had been in touch about this recent development (it was not “news” to Bishop), so perhaps it was Bishop who really owed a letter. Bishop wrote, “I’ll try to get a card for Aunt Mabel in Petrópolis today.” And concluded this brief, jumbled letter with a plea: “I am very eager to hear from you and learn what you’re doing, if you’ve got a job, etc., and how you’re liking it there.”

While not as far south as Key West, Hollywood was in southern Florida. Having been in that neck of the woods relatively recently, it is clear Bishop was pleased that Grace was experiencing something of the “state with the prettiest name.” Scribbled in Bishop’s gnomic holograph, at the bottom of the page, was her acknowledgement that Grace would find it “strange,” having her “1st Christmas in the tropics! They put off fire-works — or used to.”
Distracted, with little left to say, Bishop signed off with love to her cousin and two aunts. If you would like to see a photograph of Grace and Mabel in Florida,click here. And Mabel and her daughter Hazel, click here.

The next post makes up for December’s brevity, but when 1958 is well underway.

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