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

Monday, February 3, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 135: Mail and Money

After the lengthy update about Aunt Florence’s death, Bishop shifted gears in her 18 March 1963 letter. She turned to one of her perennial subjects: the mails. She asserted, tentatively, that she didn’t think she owed Grace a letter: “unless one of yours got lost again!” An all too frequent happening and concern. She told her aunt that “shortly after Christmas” she had written Grace “almost a BOOK,” and noted of her last from her aunt, “I have it here – was just before you left for Florida.” A little pause, “ – ” and an afterthought, “or maybe you didn’t get my BOOK?” Clearly, there was some break in the exchange, which sometimes could not get “flowing,” but was rather more often “flown.” Upon reflection, that “BOOK” “may have looked temptingly fat to someone.” Evidence of pilfering had come to hand recently, in the form of “a manilla envelope that had obviously been opened.” The contents “were just three crayon drawings by the small son of a friend of mine.” Bishop was “puzzled” by this offering, “they were funny, but not that funny.” The mystery was solved when she “got a letter from him [her friend] saying he’d sent the drawings along with 3 pot holders his little girl had made me!” Bishop had received such a gift from this girl “once before & I had thanked her effusively.” This time, however, they were removed and Bishop wondered if that “someone” would even “know what they were for!” because Brazilians “usually just use towels.” This account was but one more in the long saga of how “the mails get worse and worse.” Sadly, Bishop observed, “but if only that were all that’s getting worse for poor damned Brasil.”
This set Bishop up for the next subject that often preoccupied her: inflation. Before she got to the core of that subject, she told Grace that she and Lota had come up to Samambaia “for Lota’s birthday – the 15th.” This event meant “hordes of people all day [Saturday] – and more on Sunday.” After the celebrations, Bishop “decided to stay on alone and try to get some work done.” In Rio, even when she “shut myself up in the study,” she still found it “hard to concentrate,” partly because “the phone goes all day long,” and the heat there was extreme, “over 100 a lot of the time.” She “desperately” needed to work because she “need[ed] MONEY.” Writing was her only way to “earn some.” This need was immediate and practical because “inflation here is a nightmare.” She noted that since she came to Brazil in 1951, “prices are about 2,000 % more … if you can imagine that.” Her American “$$$ keep[s] rising … but not enough.” She could “manage here while I’d have to teach or something in the US,” but even so, she had to write.

To convey more practically to Grace what she meant, Bishop offered an example: “I bought a little pair of sandals for ‘Monica’ … while her ma was away – just cheap, open sandals – for a 2 year old.” Bishop paid for them in Brazilian currency and they cost more … than I used to pay to have my own very best shoes hand-made by a Portuguese ladies’ bootmaker, about four years ago.” (An aside: it is interesting that EB had a shoemaker make shoes, just like her shoemaker Grandfather Bulmer probably did.) Bishop reported that “in [US] $$ it came to about $3.00 for the sandals.” Bishop’s own shoes had cost “about $10.” I was a bit confused by her calculations, but she doesn’t give the amount she paid in Brazilian currency, which was where the inflation was the worst. I took this to mean that Brazilians were paying equivalent to the $10, where EB paid only $3.00 in US funds. Whatever the case, inflation was high and Bishop was making the point that “poor Brazilians” were being hit hard. One of the most basic staples, milk, was for Brazilians, “equivalent … to … over $1.50 a quart” (remember, it is 1963). All Bishop could say, soberly, was, “I think of the babies here.”

Another example concerned their “part-time maid” in Rio. They paid  “for her bus fares, just what we used to pay her for a month’s wage when we hired her two years ago.” All of this meant “you have to keep raising, raising wages all the time.” Bishop knew that because she had American “$$” she was “lucky,” and the rampant inflation “doesn’t effect us too much,” but she also knew she was “a very rare exception, of course.”

Bishop’s next subject was also a perennial favourite, the sandal-wearing, two-year-old “Monica,” Mary Morse’s adopted daughter. The next post will attend to that lively update and close this gossipy epistle to Bishop’s “favorite relative.”

Click here to see Post 134.

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