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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 112: Worst and First

Bishop’s next letter to Grace was dated 18 January 1962, just over two weeks after the first one for the year. It was not as long, but offers a glimpse of their split domestic life, the “back and forth” between the house as Samambai and the apartment in Rio, as Lota’s job with the park intensified.

This epistle started off, however, with a concern over Bishop’s previous communication. After they had got “back to P[etrópolis] for the weekend” (Bishop had mailed the 3 January letter in the city), Bishop reported she had “got your note of the 3rd.” They had written to each other on the same day (space-time is an interesting phenomenon). This note told Bishop that her aunt was gallivanting again, that she was “off to Montreal.” This made Bishop wonder when Grace would receive “that BOOK I mailed you,” by which she meant, as she scribbled above “BOOK”: “(big letter).” Bishop had sent that long letter “registered mail, one day last week, from Rio,” but she was “afraid it had to be forwarded to you at Mary’s.” That was where Grace was headed, “‘by car’ you say.”

Driving from anywhere in Nova Scotia to Montreal at any time of year is no small trek (according to Google the distance is 1,128 km and takes 10 hours and 46 minutes on the Trans Canada Highway — in 1962 there would not have been much of this highway built, if any); but doing so in the dead of winter was adventurous, to say the least. Bishop wondered if Grace was “driving with someone” and hoped “the roads are good — better than here, certainly.” Since, as far as I know, Grace did not drive, she was surely being driven there by someone.

Grace’s road trip triggered one of Bishop’s lively stories about her and Lota’s own recent “trip down to Rio Tuesday,” from which they were “just recovering.”

They set off in a “terrific storm,” which had started Monday, “the worst every recorded, I think.” [Note: I went looking for such a storm and found mention of it on a blog which listed natural disasters in Rio de Janeiro. According to this site, 242 mm, nearly 100 inches, of rain fell during this storm. No wonder they encountered what they did on this trip.]

Bishop recounted that rain made the roads “almost impassable.” She conceded that they “really shouldn’t have” gone “in the little Volkswagon.” They encountered “rocks almost as big as the car,” which were “scattered over the mountain road.” In addition, there was “thick fog — stranded trucks all along the way.” They made it “down” the mountain but found “the highway into the city was flooded.” They “had to wait about two hours” to do the final leg into Rio. Needless to say, there were “many accidents.” One in particular was slightly surreal: “one load of cotton had been upset — we saw all this white stuff through the fog, and a crowd, and couldn’t imagine what it was.” It was “the bales burst open — the truck wrecked, of course.”

After having survived that treacherous trip, “that night there was a small earthquake — the first ever recorded here — very slight.” Bishop reported that they were “reading in our beds” when they felt something. Bishop, who had “felt worse in Massachusetts!” immediately “said to Lota, ‘That’s a quake.’” Lota “pooh-poohed the whole thing,” but the next morning “the papers” reported it. Bishop was “glad” to have her sense confirmed, the proof that “it hadn’t been just my poetic imagination but a real tremor.”

Again, I attempted to find something online about this minor seismic incident, but couldn’t. Still, we can trust Bishop and the papers in both these accounts of the worst rainfall recorded to that date and the first tremor ever detected. An eventful day.
(It is hard to find images of torrential rain and rock slides
or minor earthquakes!Instead, I offer a poor scan of a photo
in Carmen Oliveira's Flores Raras e Banalisimas,
of the beginning of Lota's park in the early 1960s.)

After this dramatic beginning, the letter turned fully to family updates and Bishop’s report about their own domestic issues. These will be taken up in the next post.

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