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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 41: “Saints casting down their crowns”

With the missing June letter, the next extant epistle is dated 9 July. Bishop wrote it during a stay in Rio. She explained the reason for this location at the beginning, which I’ll reveal it later. The central subject of this post was, however, her account of recent festivities connected to Christian saints and their celebrations in Brazil.

Bishop informed her aunt that they had “just had the two biggest Saints’ days — Saint John and Saint Peter.” The festival for Saint John occurred at the equinox, “your longest day, our shortest.” So, winter had arrived in the southern hemisphere, even as there had been “beautiful weather — hot enough to go swimming in the middle of the day, but really quite cool most of the time.”

The Festa Junina came with “great displays of fireworks and bonfires.” Then, Bishop added, “about a week later comes St. Peter,” with “more fireworks.”

In order to see the fireworks at their best, Bishop told Grace that she and Lota “took a group of friends in our bus up to the top of a mountain.” To orient Grace, Bishop noted that the spot was “almost up to that Christ you saw in the movies.” This reference is, of course, to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue perched high above Rio. I remember being take to this spot in 1999 with it spectacular 360° view of the city. I have never seen such an amazing spot. Surely, Rio must be one of the most beautiful settings for a city in the world.
Bishop explained to Grace that the fireworks “were set off in a lagoon down below.” Bishop’s only word for the sight was “beautiful.” She noted that being “so high up” meant that the fireworks “were almost silent.” The colourful explosions were capped off with “a lot of rockets … set off right from that Christ — back and forth, from below and above, answering each other.”

This breath-taking outing ended up consuming breath in another way. Bishop reported that during that evening “we broke the car and we all had to get out and push.” Then she said something that made me pause and ponder, having been up the side of at least two precipitously steep mountains in Rio: “then coast all the way down the mt.” I imagine the effort to keep the car from careening.

Car trouble was their frustration during this Saint’s day, but there were also consequences for the city, as Bishop noted, “the fireworks around the Christ started a brush fire up there” — one thinks of the fire in “The Armadillo.” “Oh well,” Bishop concluded, “it was all very spectacular!”

These celebrations were a welcome diversion from dental work she was having done, “such a bore.” They had gone to Rio intending “to stay four or five days.” Two weeks later they were still there because of the broken car and it was taking “so long to get it fixed.” “You can imagine,” Bishop wrote, “how short our wardrobes are running!” They had managed to get a friend to retrieve their mail and send it “on the bus,” their post box “overflowing.” Bishop had hoped that this abundance would include a letter from Grace, but there was none, which got her niece worried. “So much mail has been lost this year.” Bishop was so concerned about the mail that she had “been numbering my letters to Aunt F.” Doing so documented that “about one out of three” went missing. So, she reasoned that the same was the case with Grace’s letters. Even so, “I’m awfully worried,” because by her reckoning, “this is the fourth time I’ve written in a row without any answer so far.” She was concerned that Grace might be sick.

Along with the “dentistry,” Bishop was taking “the opportunity” of the delay to have “a new bunch of allergy tests made.” She had had “two bad weeks” before the Rio trip because “all the grass had gone to seed.” She informed Grace that apparently “lots of ‘foreigners’ are allergic to this grass when it blossoms — Brazilians never.” Even so, she couldn’t help but say that “the scenery with all the grass on the mountains a bright rose-red, was superb.” Sometimes beauty exacts a price, but one Bishop did not complain too much about.

She told Grace that she had “a nice new doctor” who “never takes a penny.” This allergist’s “various vaccines and serums really have me almost cured.” But he “likes to repeat all the tests every year.”

The Rio sojourn was going to end “tomorrow or the next day.” They had been away from the house at Samambaia long enough for them to be “worried about our two dogs and two cats, and our cook, who telephones faithfully every morning, and hates being left alone.”

In that lost June letter, Bishop had told Grace about the most recent baby, born on 17 June, “very pretty and very healthy.” This must have been the cook’s most recent. The girl had been named Patricia, which Bishop observed, oddly, was “a rather silly name for her, but it isn’t too bad.” Bishop promised her aunt that she would send her “some snapshots of the whole family.” If she did they did not survive.

As anxious as they were to get back home, they had needed the break (even if unexpectedly extended) because “we were both so tired with all the preparations, everyone sick in bed with grippe, etc., except us.” They had enjoyed seeing “our Rio friends, etc.” But it was now time to escape the busy city.

Winding down her letter, Bishop mentioned that she needed to “get dressed to go to town.” This jaunt required a “20-minute bus ride.” She closed with a plea, “Please do let me hear from you,” wondering if her aunt was “with Phyllis.” Bishop sent this letter to Great Village, but knew that might not be right. Just before her usual “with much love,” Bishop asked, “Are the strawberries ripe?” They would be full-on in Great Village at that time. She was able to get them in Rio, “about 50¢ for a small basket,” but they were “never ripe enough, although they do have more flavour than the N.Y. ones, at least.”

The next post finally brings a letter from Grace.

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