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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 32 – The Extended Brazilian Family and Carnival

With the weather situation dispatched in her letter of 12 March 1958, Bishop offered Grace an explanation for why Lota had been enduring the excessive heat in Rio. A crisis had developed with Lota’s sister and required her attention on a number of occasions.

Bishop was under the impression that Grace already knew something of the situation, “I think the last time I wrote you [Lota’s] sister [Marietta Nascimento] had had her first operation.” Since this information was not included in the final letter for 1957, another letter must have conveyed it. But, then, as Bishop thinks again, she wonders: “I’m not sure whether I wrote you or not.”’

Lota’s sister had “two badly infected tumors,” which required emergency surgery. Lota “had to rush to Rio one night and get the sister into a hospital, where she was operated on at 6 A.M.” Bishop was certain that if Lota had not intervened, her sister “surely would have died.” Clearly, in some sort of denial, the sister was “just dying, at home, taking aspirin and ice-water, with her lover at her bedside!” Bishop’s unkind assessment of this woman was that she was “too wacky to do anything for herself.”

The initial intervention solved one problem, only to have another, “adhesions,” develop. These required further surgery, which also required Lota’s presence. Bishop watched all this unfold and described the situation as “dreadful.” Bishop and Grace shared a keen interest in all things medical. Grace was still nursing, though in a reduced capacity, and she had been in this profession since the mid-1910s. A running theme in Bishop’s letters to her aunt was medicine. [Ed. note: Eons ago, I presented a paper to The History of Medicine Society in Halifax, N.S., about Bishop’s medical history and her keen interest in medicine.]

One pleasant consequence of this family drama was that Lota’s nephew, Flavio Soares Regis, came to stay with them for a few weeks, while his mother was in hospital. Bishop described Flavio as “a book-worm, 15 years old.” He suffered from asthma, so he and Bishop had an instant connection. His condition, like hers, required injections, which Bishop administered. They encouraged him to go swimming.

Bishop and Flavio eventually became good friends. One other deep connection they shared was a love of music. Flavio eventually entered the Brazilian diplomatic service, but retained a keen love of jazz music. Sadly, however, he committed suicide early in 1971. A death Bishop felt acutely. She never learned the reasons for this irreversible decision, but she blamed the troubled and tumultuous political situation in Brazil. She had always felt the pressures and strains of Lota’s involvement in public life and the Parque do Flamenco had taken a serious toll on her health and led directly to her suicide.

But, in 1958, Flavio was a bright, young, pleasant companion, someone Bishop could talk to about poetry and music. Her fondness for him never waned. He must have felt a deep fondness for her, too, because when she became persona non grata in Brazil after Lota’s death in 1967, their friendship endured.
Bishop did not remain always at Samambaia when Lota was in Rio. Once the worst of the trouble with Lota’s sister eased, Bishop went “to Rio for the one night of carnival I wanted to see — the Negro Samba ‘schools’.” Carnival is one of the most elaborate events in Brazil (might one suggest, the world). Bishop had a keen interest in this phenomenon of celebration and tried to see the big parade every year. This year, Bishop reported to Grace, “we had seats in the press section, but just boards, and it was fearfully hot.” They countered the strain of the heat with “a thermos of iced coffee to support us through the night, and sandwiches.” It was an all-nighter because “the really good ones don’t come until the end.” But they didn’t make it through to the end this year, giving up around 3 A.M., driving “all the way back here.”  For reasons unknown to Bishop, “the schedule was so off” that things didn’t wind up until 11 A.M. the next day.
Bishop then offers a description to Grace about the participants of this grand event. “They’re clubs of dancers, hundreds in each club.” These clubs “rehearse all year, and make their own songs and dances.” Bishop herself wrote some samba songs for carnival. Most of these clubs were comprised of “the poorest people” in Rio, but they managed to “put thousands into it.” Professional dance teachers were hired and elaborate, “beautiful costumes” made. Some clubs decked out in sumptuous “silks and satins,” with “white wigs” from the “Louis XVI period.” Bishop declared, “It’s one of the nicest things in Brazil, for me.”
Unfortunately, on this excursion, she “picked up some germs” and not being “used to them” developed “horrible diorraha [sic: I don’t think I need to clarify this misspelling!] and she had been struggling with something like flu for “over a week.” As bad as she felt, she did not return to Rio to see a doctor, but toughed it out in the cooler air of the mountains. Her treatment for this ailment was “charcoal pills” and “waited for it to subside and finally it did.”

By the time Bishop wrote this letter, Flavio was “back at school.” But all was not quiet at the house in Samambaia because all the grandchildren were visiting. More about them in the next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment