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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 115: Customs and cooks

Bishop’s third 1962 letter to Grace is dated 6 February, just two days before her 51st birthday. She was in Rio where “it pours and pours and pours.” The sunshine she had mentioned returning in her previous letter didn’t stay around long. Without any preamble, Bishop launched into a tale of woe, declaring that as a result of all the rain “we not only have leaks in our roof up in the country but now we have leaks in Rio.” Lota’s apartment in Leme was “on the top floor and in the last stages of decrepitude.” All their efforts to “get [the leaks] fixed” had brought “no result.” Consequently, “plastic buckets dot the house and the apartment as well.” Bishop hoped that “a plumber is supposed to come today to start a few repairs” at the apartment, but clearly, she was dubious it would happen.

Then a shift of focus: “Also —” brought in another tale of frustration about their “trunks,” shipped from the US when they returned in December from the New York sojourn. Bishop reported that they were “still in the customs.” Because of Lota’s position and connections, they always had help dealing with this agency, but from Bishop’s perspective, it seemed that “the more pull we have the harder a time” they had with customs. In this instance, “we have a Captain from the army, who salutes us,” helping them. This person was provided by Carlos Lacerda, “Lota’s friend.” But he was proving no grease to the wheel. Bishop noted, “we just can’t get things out.” Her frustration was evident, “and I’m getting pretty desperate.” She had packed “a lot of my papers and my real check-book, etc.,” in the trunk because “they all weigh so much.” 
(Carlos Lacerda. Wikipedia.)
Bishop remembered that when they last returned from abroad, “Lota’s Uncle was Foreign Minister and sent somebody important to help.” He, too, was no grease to the wheel. Indeed, he seemed to be a problem because “we ended up paying more than if we hadn’t had any help.” Bishop explained to a probably puzzled Grace (why would they not do better with such important personages intervening for them?): “The customs here are an independent organization, it seems.” Clearly, she concluded, “no one can do anything about it,” and especially no one of importance. All this experience confirmed for Bishop that the “next time” she would “forgo all ‘big shot’ help or ‘pull’ and just do it myself.”

The gap between this paragraph and the next seems to hold a big exhale and sigh, at least one can imagine it so.

She then turned to another subject which was only marginally less frustrating by noting that “Elizabeth [Naudin] is staying up in Teresopolis.” Bishop hoped that all the rain wasn’t making that time “too lonely” for her cousin. But perhaps the presence of “her sister-in-law” mitigated the dreariness. The frustration came with the report that these women “were supposed to come for lunch” “two Saturdays ago,” which did not happen because “it rained so hard” that the drive and visit had to be canceled. Bishop weakly said she would “try again next week-end.” Part of the issue was that they were both, “Lota particularly,” working “so hard here in Rio,” which meant “that when we get up there for two days … we like to take it easy.” That aim “rarely” happened “because there are always people to entertain, it seems.” And the responsibility for the food fell to Bishop because “that cook [Maria] can’t COOK.”
(Rio de Janeiro, 1962. Elenara Stein Leitao.)
Bishop reminded her aunt once again that they were “trying to get another ‘couple’ — but can’t seem to.” As a result, Bishop ended “up cooking all day Saturday usually.” She declared that she didn’t mind such domestic work “when I don’t have other things to do.” At that moment, she was “up to my neck in work — and away behind.” One of the things she was doing was planning to mail copies “of the BRAZIL book,” which was “supposed to appear the end of this month.” (N.B. This “supposed” was the third so far in the opening two paragraphs of this letter, an indication of how uncertain many things were at that moment.)

She told Grace that she would “change the address … on your copy” and send it to Florida. Bishop was still trying to keep track of her elderly aunt, was gallivanting again.

This relatively short epistle wound down quickly after this litany of “supposed” events. The next post will take up the final few matters.

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