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

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 109: Rio in 1962

Bishop began winding down the joint part of her 3 January 1962 letter to Aunts Grace and Mary with a brief account about the state of things in Brazil. She first noted that “Lota is hard at work again,” on the big park project, though Bishop also observed that “nothing much happened while she was away.” Then “Poor Brazil” comes into the equation. Bishop described it as “in awful shape.” The best way she felt she could convey the situation to her aunts was a rather indelicate joke, revealing that as fastidious as Mary was and as respectable as Grace was, Bishop felt that both women wouldn’t mind a bit of off-colour, though she presents it in as discreet a way as possible.

Bishop began this “favourite joke at present …. a very Portuguese joke,” in a classic way: “two men talking to each other about the situation, very gloomy.” Finally, one of them “says to the other — ‘Well, times are so bad — we’re all going to end up eating sh-t.’” Of course, the punch line is: “The other replies, ‘Yes — and there isn’t even enough sh-t to go around.’”

{Check out this link to a wonderful b&w, 8 minute film about Rio in 1962. I was fascinated by the whole thing. This profile of Rio hardly make it looks “awful,” but rather shows quite a glamorous city. Watch to the end, and you will see why I’ve chosen the more recent images below. Great to get a sense of the atmosphere there in that year.}
 (Iconic Rio in 1999. Photo by Sandra Barry.)
After having been in Samambaia for Christmas, Bishop told her aunts that they can gone “to Rio — Jan 2nd — and I got 2 letter from Aunt Grace.” This explains how Bishop learned that Grace had feared she had been on the airplane that crashed late the previous year. One of these letters was “dated Dec 10th and one on the 17th.” That she was only now getting them proved “how slow the mails still are.” However, she defended her adopted country by noting, “I really think that’s YOUR ‘rush’ not Brasil’s fault for once.” She had also received one from Aunt Mary “dated the 27th,” which was a more “normal time” coming.

One of Grace’s letters revealed something Bishop did not know: “I didn’t think you had a telephone, Aunt Grace, in G V.” So she had missed not only a trip to Nova Scotia, but an easier chance to talk to her aunt, on the phone. All this made her wistful again about not following through on the one thing she really wanted to do: “I am so terribly sorry not to have got there [Nova Scotia].”  Wishing she had had “a little more time,” and second guessing herself, she continued that if she “hadn’t gone to see Mr Blum,” she “bet he could have fixed it up with the income tax people afterwards!” But in the moment, in the context of the book work, Bishop did not have time to think out the all possibilities.

The final short paragraph of this joint part of her letter ended with a few final updates. After asking her aunts to “please give my love to everyone,” she noted that she was “going to call on Elizabeth [Naudin] this afternoon, I think.” Then she reported that she had been sick for “three days … last week” with “bronchitis, coughing my head off.” But she was planning to go out anyway, even though it was “fearfully hot.” In the midst of all the domestic troubles and struggles, she finished her joint letter on a positive note, telling Mary particularly that “at least I earned enough money to paint this apartment … we’re going to start right away.” Mary would know first hand how much the painting was needed. Her “much love to you both and Happy New Year” was typed vertically on the thin left margin because the next page was for only Grace. As she “add[ed] a bit more just for” Grace, she noted that her favourite aunt would now understand “why I am sending you the carbon — it is clearer than the 1st copy.” Before getting to the real reason for the separate Grace-only part, Bishop explained that the carbon was clearer than the original letter because “I need a new ribbon.” It is apparent even in the photocopy that the addition is more faded in the photocopy of the carbon, clearly revealing the ribbon issue.

Further more, Bishop reiterated that she “must hurry out to pay the gas and light bills before the office closes down.” This office was “away on the other side of the city.” It was a “special office, because no one paid” the bills while they “were away, and now they are threatening to cut off the service.” One of the practical issues was that they could  not use “checks,” which would have made “life so much easier.” Checks were used “for some things, but just between friends, apparently — not for bills or utilities.”

Ultimately, Bishop’s reason for the separate section was to “gossip about Mary and her family.” But before she got to that subject, she got side-tracked with more reiterations and catching up with things Grace had written. These diversions will comprise the next post.
(To prove I was actually in Rio in September 1999,
here is me standing beneath that breath-taking statue with
N.S. poet Brian Barlett, left, and Bishop scholar Gary Fountain, centre.)

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