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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 60: Cats, marmalade and capitals

Once Bishop got family and world affairs tended to, she shifted gears quickly in her letter of 22 May 1960, revealing that she did in fact have some news to tell her aunt.. She announced that “yesterday we had a lot of people to tea — in a rain storm.” The preceding week had been “clear and beautiful,” which must have prompted the plan to have folks in, but the needed “nice week-end” did not materialize, and Bishop somberly noted, “it looks as if it would pour all day today, too.”

Bishop’s reason for mentioning the gathering was to tell Grace about “one couple … named ‘Featherstone’ — don’t you love that name?”* Bishop noted that the husband was English and the wife an American and explained: “we don’t know them at all, but she is the one who gave us the Siamese cat and so I think they came to see how we were treating him.” Then Bishop engaged in a quick character sketch: “Mrs. F has inuumerable [sic] cats; she is very very shy, with big eyes.” Bishop herself had fetched the cat, “Suzuki,” going to their home, “a huge neglected old house that smelt very much of cat.” Engaging in a bit of stereotype-hyperbole, perhaps, Bishop then noted, “she really seemed like a witch.”

As for “Mr. F,” Bishop revealed that he didn’t “care much for all the cats,” and was “apt to whisper to the guests, ‘wouldn’t you like a cat?’”

This background segued into a brief character sketch of Suzuki, who, according to Bishop was “a darling — much brighter than the other two,” which immediately prompted the next statement: “Our breakfasts are a mess.” Bishop explained again: “I have a tray at seven o’clock and Lota comes in my room to have breakfast, too.” Immediately on her heels arrived the cats: “what with Lota and three cats all into the tray simultaneously,” with Suzuki talking “all the time, too — something is always getting upset or somebody’s nose is always getting burned.” Well, I am trying to imagine this scene with its talking, upsetting and burning! Once the hubbub subsided, Bishop noted, “then they all bathe each other madly (Lota and I don’t!) and then go to sleep in a heap.”

From the Featherstones to Suzuki to breakfast mayhem, Bishop then made another leap: to marmalade, of course. “This is marmalade season,” she declared. She’d already sent Grace some recipes for marmalade, and now Bishop made a modest boast: “I’m really getting pretty good at it.” (One wonders if the cook was learning, too.) She reported that she had made “2 dozen jars” and was still working on “a batch of tangerine marmalade — we have loads of tangerines, mostly too sour to eat, but they make wonderful marmalade — jells very quickly and a lovely bright orange.” Remembering that her cousin would be arriving in the near future, Bishop assured Grace, “I’ll give Elizabeth some to start her off!”

Just as family and world affairs were linked at the beginning of this letter, so this intimate domestic news somehow triggered the next big leap and announcement that involved some domestic news about Brazil itself. The next paragraph began abruptly: “Brazil changed its capital lastmonth — or maybe you saw something about it in the paper?” Bishop explained how the capital moved from Rio to “the new city, Brazilia [sic].” Bishop noted that Rio had become “a new state, the Estado do Guanabara (that’s the name of the bay Rio’s on).” To make matters more confusing, Bishop wrote that Samambaia/PetrĂ³polis, where they lived, was “still in the Estado do Rio de Janeiro.” To offer Grace a point of comparison, she noted: “As if we lived in Albany, New York, but the city of New York was in Connecticut. (My address is the same.)” Well, that clarifies it for me!?
(Images of Brasilia)
Bishop held some negative views of this big shift in Brazilian geo-politics, though she did not editorialize in this letter. Rather, she made another abrupt leap, perhaps one which obliquely reflected her unspoken opinion that Brasilia was wrong-headed: “Our new cook can’t cook anything except corn meal muffins and mashed potatoes — she has mastered them.” Sadly, the cook had not mastered broiling a steak or frying an egg, “which seems so much easier, to me.” (I guess marmalade was out of the question!) Even so, they were putting up with her because “her husband is a dream … works and polishes all day long and we have never been so clean in our lives.”

Bishop had reached the end of her all over the place epistle, several dense paragraphs filled with all manner of oddly related subjects. These paragraphs took up the entire page, and not wanting to take up another sheet (perhaps because she might again go, as Stephen Leacock once wrote: “madly off in all directions”), she turned the page horizontal in her typewriter and added to the left side: “How is Phyllis? Did she get my note? I hope I’ll hear from you soon — if you see Aunt Mabel tell  her I’m going to write — How is your health? Your leg? With much love,” then in tiny holograph, “Elizabeth.”

Still not done, but without any more room to type out a postscript, Bishop scribbled in the top left-hand corner: “Aunt F[lorence] broke — or cracked a thigh-bone. She is in Worcester Memorial Hospital — BELMONT St. Maybe you could send her a card — The cousins are all so fed up with the poor cranky old thing.” Nothing like using every inch of her stationary and getting in another jab at poor Aunt F.

Only a couple of weeks passed before Bishop penned another letter, 8 June, which will commence the next post.

*Note: A search of Featherstone shows that it is the name of a town in Yorkshire, as well as a number of other places, and a winery in Ontario.

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