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

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 65: Productivity and Domesticity

The final dense paragraph of Bishop’s 5 August 1960 “hurried” letter to Grace was another running list of activities, which were more or less related and dealt with domestic matters. Bishop make a quick leap from the “family tree” to baking, without any transition.

Because of “the bad inflation here,” she told her aunt that the price of bread was “getting worse and worse.” As a result, Bishop took it into her mind to “try to do two or three big loaves once a week.” Bread making must have been a rare task for her prior to this time because she happily declared to her aunt, “I’ve just discovered that I can bake a very good loaf of bread.” This plan wasn’t as straight forward as it might seem because “we use bottled gas up here and hate to use the oven very much for fear we run out.” Ever the Robinson Crusoe, wanting to make this do for that, Bishop was trying to convince Lota (who was herself someone keen on invention — after all, they had designed their own stove for the living room) “to build me an outdoor oven, of mud, the kind they use here — very picturesque, bee-hive shaped.” If such an oven could be constructed, Bishop felt that she could then “bake lots of things.”

Bishop had already decided on one of her favourite loaves: “Do you know a New England bread called ANADAMA bread”? This traditional bread contained “a little cornmeal and molasses.” Bishop declared, “It’s delicious.” She offered to send her aunt the recipe if she didn’t already have it.
Without a pause, Bishop shifted focus to their new “wonderful Portuguese gardener … not a real gardener … but Lota is letting him use several acres of land.” Part of the deal was that Lota paid “for manure” and they split the profits. This ambitious fellow was, in fact, a real farmer who had already grown “900 cauliflower and about half an acre of tomatoes.” He also had “100 artichoke plants, for us, and a lot of endive.” He also planted strawberries, but this crop was not so successful “and the birds ate most of them.” This arrangement meant that they were “having lots of vegetables again.” His industry, “it’s the first time we’ve had anyone any good around,” was challenged by the weather, as Bishop explained: “one week too late and everything rots in the rain.” And this year was a wet one in Brazil. Bishop had been learning from this “gardener”: “celery for example,” she wrote to Grace, “can’t be banked unless you have a roof over it to keep the rains out.”

All this produce had triggered more preserving: “3 dozen jars of marmalade” (they ate an awful lot of marmalade!), plus “a dozen of mustard pickles (all those cauliflowers!).” After all that labour, Bishop noted, “now I am resting on my laurels for awhile.”

With the update about the gardener/farmer, Bishop thought she should report on the maid again, the “newest maid … imported from the interior.” This young woman “had never seen a flush toilet before.” In spite of her ignorance of modern amenities and lack of experience, Bishop noted that “she is very willing and quiet and works awfully hard.” Then she quoted, “as Lota says, ‘in twenty years she’ll be awfully good’.”

Amid all this domesticity, Bishop told Grace that she had “been working hard” at her writing, and reported that she had “sold several poems lately, and have a long long story almost done.” Millier (313) notes that Bishop’s poems “Trollope’s Journal,” “The Riverman,” “Electrical Storm,” and “Song for the Rainy Season,” all appeared in 1960, the latter being published in October, so perhaps at the time of this letter, it was something Bishop had just placed. I am unsure what the story was, but perhaps “The Country Mouse,” which was published in 1961.

All this productivity and domesticity suited Bishop just fine and she observed, “If it weren’t for the dental and financial worries everything would be rosy with us.” This general contentedness would not last, when Brazilian politics intervened later in the year, pulling Lota into public life and ushering in a major shift in their daily activities. But neither of them could see that yet.

They were, as always, watching what was happening in the world: “Meanwhile,” Bishop wrote, “the world goes from bad to worse, doesn’t it … the Belgians reaping what they sowed, in the Congo, and the U.S. reaping what it sowed, in Cuba.” Bishop is referring to the independence of Congo in June of that year and the beginning of a civil war there. And, of course, all the fall out from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Quickly, Bishop signed off with “lots and lots” of love for her aunt and “Phyllis and family,” asking Grace to “please write soon.” Then off she would have gone to Petrópolis to the market and to post her letter.

Bishop’s next letter was written towards the end of September, a less hurried epistle with lots of news.

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