N ew York, USA, 2003

“Not there — that’s northeast!” Sally held her spectacles aloft and shook her head at Barbara.

“Northeast?” Barbara countered. “Oh. Isn’t metal in the north meant to bring clarity, calm and… and increased productivity?” Her voice tapered off as she dropped the heavy samovar at Sally’s feet.

“Yes, all those. But not northeast. Northwest. Like… there!” Lifting the samovar, Sally strutted to the other corner of the room and placed it on the old walnut dresser.

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. All that low energy you’ve been telling me about, frustration, inertia… we’ve gotta remove the samovar from your northeast.”

Placed against the heavy green drapes, the samovar looked like a prop in a Yiddish theatrical, but Barbara knew better than to argue with the power of feng shui.

“Where is that from, anyway?” Sally drawled, shaking her auburn curls. “It’s interesting.”

“Oh. It’s a samovar. My great-grandparents brought it with them all the way from Russia. You know Sally”— Barbara’s eyes took on a dreamy quality — “I don’t believe any negative energy could echo off this thing; it’s almost part of the family!”

Sally snorted. “Hope so. You’re paying enough for my advice. Ignore at your peril!”

Barbara feigned a reluctant surrender.

“Okay, I get it. I’ll leave it on the dresser.”

“So… you wash your face with that?”

“Not really. It’s a hot water urn, that’s all. Never seen one before?”

Removing the ornate teapot and the funnelled lid, Barbara showed Sally the samovar’s cavernous depths.

“See — that inner pipe holds coals or timber. When smoldering, they keep water hot for hours.”

“Water makes awesome feng shui, you know,” Sally said sagely. “Coal… not really. But they’re stored in the center, you say? Funny, I can almost smell the burning. What incredible energy!!”

Barbara’s eyes lit up. Her manicured fingers caressed the copper drum. “Russians believe samovars have souls, you know.”

Her poetic rambling was stopped short by a distinct, very real, odor of burning timber.

“Can you excuse me for a moment?”

Sally waved her off with a wrinkled hand. “Go! But don’t keep an old lady waiting too long.”

Barbara dashed up the main staircase, struggling to maintain her elegant posture while taking the steps two at a time.

The smell of smoke intensified as she drew closer to her daughter’s room.

“Andrea!”

“Andrea!”

By the third call, Andrea’s spectacles peered around the doorframe.

“You okay, Mom?”

“That’s what I’m asking you….”

Andrea lowered her forehead and shook her bangs.

“Er... sure. All’s good, Mom.”

Giving a decisive push to the door, Barbara walked in.

Smoke tickled her nostrils.

“What’s burning?”

Arms folded, Andrea shifted her balance. “Nothing. Why do you think there’s something burning?”

“Because I wasn’t born yesterday, sweetie, that’s why! There’s enough smoke in here to raise the dead.” Barbara strode past the towering pile of clothing on Andrea’s bed and flung the closet doors wide open.

It was empty, apart from a forlorn, abandoned rod and two tall tapered Halloween candles dripping wax all over the bottom shelf.

“Nothing burning, huh?” Barbara gave her daughter a wry frown.

“Sorry, Ma. Really. With your feng shui thing and everything, I didn’t think you’d let me... ”

Barbara raised one hand sternly and snuffed the candles out with her other.

“Let you what? Burn the house down?”

“No, Mom… I wouldn’t have done this if I’d thought you’d be more understanding!”

“Oh. Okay. So now it’s my fault?”

Andrea gulped.

“No, Mom. I should’ve asked….” She rubbed her palms over her faded denim jeans. “Look, I said I’m sorry. I was only trying out something I saw at Hillel House. You know — sunset candles on a Friday kinda thing.”

“You mean Sabbath candles.”

“Uh. Yeah…”

“I know about those.” Barbara’s voice was strangely calm. Andrea blinked, confused.

“You mean… you don’t mind?”

“Oh. I wouldn’t say that. I definitely mind raising a closet pyromaniac!” But, leaning against the doorframe, Barbara added distantly, “Grandma Roizl used to light those. Every week. Just as the day fell dark. My Ma — she hated it. Said we were through with medieval charades. But, I don’t know… Grandma seemed to enjoy it.”

“Soooo,” Andrea’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You’re okay, Mom, with me, and Hillel House, an’ stuff…? You’re cool with medieval charades?”

Barbara straightened herself. “I have to see Sally off. She’s been walking me through my feng shui. But don’t disappear. I want to show you something.”

Andrea heard a tinkle of wind chimes and observed Sally swagger down their driveway, switching around a garden gnome with a potted bonsai as she left.

Then Barbara was back, a plastic wrapped bundle of tattered notes and a grey folder tucked under her arm.

“This turned up,” said Barbara, waving the nylon sheath at Andrea as she shoved aside the pile of clothing and perched herself on the edge of the bed. “When Christina polished the samovar, she dismantled it. It took me hours to reassemble it, but she found this inside the inner pipe.

“You won’t understand a word; it’s all in Russian.”

Andrea’s face fell. Barbara was enjoying the suspense.

“Still. I sent it off to Dad’s old colleague, remember Mr. Manilewitz? He translated it for us. Fascinating stuff.”

“Can I look?”

“You’ll need more than a look. There’s half a lifetime’s diary there.” Barbara handed Andrea the grey folder and rose. “Take your time,” she said, as she walked out the door, “But no more candles in the closet!”


Novgorod-Seversky, Ukraine, 1868

Once again, it is Zelig who tells me the news.

He’s back. He’s back. I haven’t slept since I heard of his return.

How does one quiet a raging heart? How does one stifle eighteen years of yearning?

But he hasn’t even knocked on our door.

I fear the silence will never end.


New York, USA, 2003

Andrea massaged her temple. Riffling through the typewritten pages, she tried reading randomly, scanning paragraphs wherever her fingers took her.... But nothing was making sense.

Who’s back? What yearning?

Sighing, she flipped her way back to the opening page of the neatly bound file. Hugging her knees, she settled in for the journey. (Excerpted from Calligraphy, Pesach 5777-2017)