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The samovar, my mother and me

I always thought the samovar in my dining room was a family heirloom. It wasn’t. My grandparents in Ukraine bought a brand-new nickel-plated samovar in 1964 and sent it to us in Canada, where we'd lived for ten years. I found this out from letters my mother left after she died.

On April 2, 1964, my grandfather, Sergei, had written to my mother: “Tomorrow a carpenter will come and make a special box for the samovar, and in the next few days I will send it to you.” The samovar stands 20 inches tall, is 13 inches wide, and weighs 12 lbs. Of course, it would need a special box.

My ever-practical grandmother, Aniela, wrote: “It is for charcoal, but I was told that it can be adapted for electricity. And as a last resort it will stand in the dining room on the table near the sideboard as a decoration.” And so it did stand, first in my mother’s dining room and now in mine.

It was one of my grandmother’s last gifts to her daughter, a last effort to maintain a link with the daughter she had not seen since 1943. A month later she was bed-ridden with cancer, and in less than a year she was dead.

Today, when I look at the samovar, I see much more than a traditional Russian appliance for making tea.

I see it as a way for my grandparents to ease their ever-present guilt at having let down their only child. Maria, my mother, was snatched from her school in Ukraine when she was 17 and forced to work as a slave in Nazi Germany. My mother never saw her parents again. Aniela and Sergei could do nothing to prevent this tragedy, but I believe from that day forward my grandmother blamed herself. And perhaps my mother blamed her, too. Certainly, as she built a new life in Canada, she made no real attempt to maintain contact with her parents.

Sergei and Aniela were elderly when they sent the samovar from Ukraine, a communist country at that time. It must have been difficult, dealing with all the red-tape. Sergei was 74 and Aniela, 81.

I believe the samovar was a gift of love. To them, their daughter was a golden gift, a child born when Aniela was already 42. They adored her. They pampered her. Ultimately they couldn't save her from something that changed all their lives forever.

To me the samovar is a symbol of a connection: a connection between my mother and her parents, between me and my mother, and between me and the grandparents I never knew.

It's a connection to my heritage.

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