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

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 114: Domestic matters

The last part of Bishop’s 18 January 1962 letter went from “point to point,” as she wrote, referring to Grace’s busy travel schedule. That is, Bishop closed her letter with a number of subjects, all from the domestic realm.

She returned first to the issue of finding good help, noting to her aunt that it was “almost impossible … to find a couple who are willing to stay off in the country.” Not only did they need help willing to tolerate relative isolation, because Elizabeth and Lota were in Rio so much now, they needed people who would “not leave the house alone,” and who would “feed the cats regularly.” Bishop didn’t feel that it was such a bad situation because there were “neighboring people of their own sort,” by which she must have meant other servants, “around for them to see.” Still, she reported that it was “getting harder and harder all the time.”

Their particular help, “this Maria,” seemed a hopeless case to Bishop, at least in the realm of cooking. After “almost two years,” Bishop noted that “she has learned how to make one thing right: corn meal muffins!” That achievement, according to Bishop, was “only because they like those themselves.” For “everything else,” Bishop moaned, “I have to go and remind her …and taste it.”

All their help was not so problematic. Bishop told Grace that “here in Rio we have a wonderful maid.” This person, “desperate for a room,” had “offered to work for us free”. As a result, she “sleeps here” and “in the morning gives us coffee and milk and the newspapers at 7 A M.” She also “cleans a bit, makes the beds, does a little ironing,” after which she went to “another job at 10:30.” Bishop found her “wonderful — so good and cheerful,” even though she couldn’t “read or write.” And Bishop quickly added, “We do pay her, of course, but very little.” During the day, Bishop noted that she herself got their “lunch and dinner,” which she described as “very skimpy.” But this cheerful person returned after her day job and washed the dishes.

Clearly, Bishop was responsible for most of the cooking regardless, whether in Rio or Samambaia. She noted that “everything here takes so long to do,” unlike in N.Y., where she didn’t “mind cooking … it takes no time at all”; but in Rio “it’s a real job” because “nothing comes cleaned or ready.”

After this account of a circumstance that might be called a “happy problem” (few of us have one maid, let alone several), Bishop must have looked out her window because she quickly shifted to the weather: “the sun is out at last.” After clearly a long stretch of rain, she hoped “things will start to dry out,” and offered that her feet had “been wet for three days I think!”

Another quick shift to: “I am looking forward to my book,” by which she must have meant “that awful LIFE book.” She declared that now she was thinking of writing “one of my own about Brazil,” so she could “say all the things I couldn’t say in it.” To do so would require “more travelling,” so she was thinking she would “use my fellowship just to travel in Brazil.” There went the idea of using it to help her get some place where she could then arrange to see Grace.

Travel led Bishop to the subject of upcoming visitors. She asked her aunt if she had ever met “my old school friend Barbara Chesney.” She was sure Grace had. Bishop reported that “she and her husband — a baby-doctor — are coming here in February.” Bishop had not seen this old friend “for twenty years or so.” Barbara Chesney Kennedy had followed a very different path than Bishop: “She has three sons, pretty grown up now.” Though in a way, Bishop’s life was just as filled with children and grandchildren, even if they were not her own family. 
(Later in life, Barbara Chesney Kennedy became a painter.
To learn more about her, click here.)
The “baby-doctor” triggered her last “//” and the observation that the health authorities “are giving the Sabinanti-polio medicine — by mouth — here now.” Bishop knew Grace would be interested in such developments, even though she was now retired from nursing. Bishop noted that Mary Morse had “brought down Monica, our dressmaker’s grandson, aged 2, and three other children one HOT day last week, to get their 2nd drop.” Transporting this little flock of children on her own in “another tiny Volkswagon,” made Bishop observe rightly, “it must have been quite a trip.” Morse had “a wonderful child-doctor,” who was a friend of theirs, too. He was “in office in Rio now — Public Health.” Bishop observed that “he is really doing wonders.” She admired this positive effort because “just about everything else goes from bad to worse.” 
Having imparted her domestic news, Bishop signed off quickly, asking Grace to “tell me more about the Florida plan,” and to write whenever she was at one of her travel destinations, so Bishop could keep track of her. She urged her elderly aunt to “take care of yourself” and closed “With much love.”

Bishop’s next letter was typed and sent just before Bishop’s fifty-first birthday, 6 February 1962. The next post will take up that epistle.

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