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The Samovar and The Soup Tureen

Story ID:2926
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Manzini Swaziland Africa
Year:1963
Person:Mildred and Thomas Danner
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The Samovar and the Soup Tureen

My mother was always one for bargains. Having survived as a teen in Genova, Italy during the Second World War my mother knew what deprivation was. The oldest of five children and the most responsible, my mother did her best to help the family survive. She had so many stories of the horrors her family endured and how they managed to live through the constant bombing, the German occupation, the fascist dictatorship and the terrible food shortages that, by comparison, my ups and downs seem like a ride at Epcot Center in Florida.

Later, having married my Irish father and moved to Swaziland in Africa to find work, these experiences helped my mother become the frugal and pragmatic woman she was the rest of her short life. In addition to being frugal and pragmatic, she was a strong woman. She never despaired and was always willing to see the silver lining in any cloud. Because of her unwanted experience in the war, she could handle any emergency or crisis with little or no trouble at all. All her friends admired her and most tried to emulate her.

One Saturday she was reading the local newspaper when she happened on a classified advertisement offering a silver Samovar and Soup Tureen for what seemed like a ridiculously low price. She telephoned the advertiser, a Mrs. Danner, and asked if she could drive out and take a look at the silver pieces. Mrs. Danner agreed to have her come over the next day in the afternoon. Upon further inquiries my mother found out that the lady lived far away, in the middle of the African bush, so she asked if it would be convenient to meet when Mrs. Danner would be coming to town to make purchases. To this Mrs. Danner replied that she never came to town. All her needs were filled by a friend who came out to her house once a week to visit and re-stock the house. My mother found this curious, but all Mrs. Danner would say was that she could not leave the house for very long. Still a deal is a deal and my mother wanted to see these silver pieces so she agreed to drive out into the bush and find the Danner house.

The next day she asked if I wanted to go with her and I said I did, so we packed a little emergency food and water, hung a canvas water-bag from the front fender of the Rover and sallied forth to meet Mrs. Danner.

The drive was long and dusty and the car overheated twice, but eventually the bush became thicker and the dirt road offered more patches of shade than sunlight. At about noon we stopped for a light snack and then started off again, following the directions Mrs. Danner had given us.

We arrived at the Danner place at about 1:30 in the afternoon and pulled up beside a green Bedford half ton pick-up truck. When my mother turned off the engine of our Rover the silence was overwhelming. There was no breeze to rustle the trees and no sound of domestic animals. There was no flower garden; there was no laundry line for drying clothes or sheets, in fact there was no sign of life at all. We sat there for a minute wondering if we had arrived at the wrong location because this house seemed abandoned. Then my mother said: “Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained” and we got out of the Rover and walked to the front door.

Mrs. Danner answered the door after the third time we knocked and invited us in apologizing for the disarray in her home. My mother tried to put her at ease and mentioned how tranquil and restful the remoteness of her home must be. I was told to greet Mrs. Danner and when I said: “How do you do?” in my best behaved manner, Mrs. Danner looked at me sadly and shook her head slightly without answering. The lady looked to be about 65 years old and it was obvious that they had been hard fought years.

Mrs. Danner left the front door open for light and pulled a cord which rang a bell in the recesses of the house. We sat in silence in the dark musty room until a very black man appeared from the back of the house at the entrance to the living room and said “Yes, madam.” It was more a statement than a question, but Mrs. Danner said: “Jacob, please bring some tea and scones.” “Yes Madam” Jacob replied and melted back into the dark doorway to make the tea.

“It’s so quiet out here, you must love the serenity” my mother pried. “Yes it is, now, if you don’t mind, I shall show you the items I advertised before tea is served.” Mrs. Danner arose and left the room. I looked at my mother and her usually confident face had a strangely insecure look to it. She saw my look, widened her eyes and flicked her eye-brows at me, describing in that brief gesture, all the confusion she felt.

Mrs. Danner materialized from the dark doorway with an enormous cardboard box in her hands. She placed the box on the rattan coffee table and said: “There they are.” My mother looked at her as if waiting for permission, but receiving no sign from the lady, she got up and walked to the box. It was not sealed and when the flaps were spread my mother saw what she had come for. She picked up a large Soup Tureen that was pitch - black and ugly looking to me. My mother saw through the silver oxide and knew that this was a quality piece. She rubbed it in certain areas slightly and asked Mrs. Danner if she was sure she wanted to sell the item. “Yes, but the price is firm - 200 guineas and not a shilling less.”

My mother raised the Samovar and again a large black object emerged from the box. It was hinged to a four legged base at the front with a removable hinge pin at the back so that its contents could be poured without moving the base. The rear hinge-pin, which was attached to the base by a small silver chain, was out so the base hung limply from the front hinge. This caused the fuel container that would burn under the samovar, keeping its contents warm, to drop out of its frame and back into the box. My mother’s expert eye recognized that all the pieces and parts were present and she sat down with a satisfied sigh. She had found the silver stamp confirming that it was sterling silver. She had also found the family crest of English nobility and knew there would be a rich history attached to the pieces.

“I won’t take a penny less” said Mrs. Danner, but my mother was satisfied that she had a deal and said: “Mrs. Danner, normally I would try to bargain with you, but under the circumstances I believe you are asking a very reasonable price for these items.” “It’s cash you know” Mrs. Danner announced. “Yes, the ad said so and I have the money with me here” my mother said, patting her hand bag. Just at that moment a strikingly handsome man, apparently aged about 38 years, entered the room, looked around furtively and hurried out. He was slender with very pale skin and very black hair. The color of his eyes was undeterminable but they were light – either: gray, blue or green.

My mother asked “Who was that?” “He’s not supposed to come in here!” Mrs. Danner was calling out loudly as if she wanted Jacob to hear her voice. “Mrs. Danner,” my mother spoke reassuringly, “please feel free to invite your son to join us.” “He’s not my son!” said Mrs. Danner. My mother blushed. “Well whoever he is, please don’t feel it would be an imposition…” “He’s my husband and he’s not supposed to come into this room.”

My mother and I sat in stunned silence. The man was about half her age and she seemed to be treating him like a child. Mrs. Danner saw the look of absolute confusion on both our faces and she pulled the bell cord for the second time. When Jacob appeared he looked frightened. “He got out, Madam, he wanted to see the visitors.” “Where is he now? Can you catch him?” asked Mrs. Danner. “I will Madam, as soon as I serve the tea.” “Oh to hell with the tea, just catch him, try the shed.” Mrs. Danner commanded.

My mother rose and said quickly: “Well here is the money, two hundred and ten pounds, please feel free to count it, I must be getting my son back home for supper.” Mrs. Danner took the bills and held them for a second, staring at them. Then she said: “He’s bomb-happy, you know…. “Shell shock,” they called it in the Second War.” “Who is?” my mother asked as if nothing abnormal was going on. “My husband”, Mrs. Danner replied. “He’s my husband you know, he has just never aged. He’s sixty eight and he looks the same as he did when he got out of that veteran’s hospital.”

Something in Mrs. Danner’s eyes caught my mother’s attention and she sat down and motioned me to sit down too. “My father fought for Italy in that war, on the side of the Allies” my mother began “he was gassed and shot, but he survived. My father is sixty six and definitely looks his age.” Mrs. Danner looked at my mother sadly and said: “That’s because he’s sane and he suffers the normal stresses of everyday life. Thomas doesn’t. We fell in love and were married in England just before The 'War to End All Wars' started. He went to fight for his country. Tommy the British Tommy.” She chuckled and then her face darkened. “There were horrific shellings along the front lines; shellings that went on for weeks. The trenches were murder holes. The men lived amongst the body parts of their friends, knowing that at any moment they could be blown to bits too. Between that and the mustard gas many went mad. Tom’s letters started to become disjointed and strange. Now he doesn’t know who or where he is and he doesn’t care. He eats if he’s fed, sleeps when I put him to bed, plays with toys and walks in the bush. Jacob must go with him at all times, because he would never be able to find his way home from the bush and he wouldn’t care. He doesn’t speak, does no work and I never scold or punish him. Everything he does is innocent, without malice or wickedness. He’s just a child; the war left me a mute child who will never grow up. He’s the real Peter Pan.”

Suddenly the handsome head of Thomas Danner appeared at the base of the entrance to the house. He was on his hands and knees looking at us around the door jamb with a strange look of confusion and curiosity on his face. “Thomas… come in here and meet our guests” said Mrs. Danner with a voice as gentle as the touch of a butterfly’s wings. Tom Danner stood and walked away quickly, furtively looking over his shoulder. His behaviour caused me some alarm and Mrs. Danner caught my look. “He’s harmless you know. There’s no need for concern.” “Would he benefit from an institution?” asked my mother. “Absolutely not!” she replied emphatically. “Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? I wouldn’t wish that on an enemy, let alone someone I love.”

Just then the enormity of this woman’s love for her husband struck both me and my mother simultaneously and my mother’s eyes began to tear. Here was a woman who had known love only once, married her love and then been deprived of that man for the rest of her life because of some family squabble between Queen Victoria and her cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm. Now all she had was this childlike shell who resembled the man she loved; a constant reminder of the love she would never regain. Here she was, selflessly sacrificing her entire life, living in the remote bush-veldt with no friends or neighbors so she could devote herself to his well being; surviving in this remote and lonely place so that her husband would not be condemned to an empty existence inside an impersonal institution.

“Mrs. Danner…” my mother began, “Mildred” Mrs. Danner said. My mother composed herself. “Mildred, I cannot take the Samovar and the Soup Tureen from you at this price.” “But you promised! You said you would take them; please don’t go back on your word” Mrs. Danner cried. “No, no, no, I am taking them, but I brought more money in case you had more silver to sell…” “No” said Mildred Danner, “That’s the last I have.” “I don’t care” my mother continued, I want to pay you three hundred pounds for this. Please take the extra money; it’s all I have on me. These items will appreciate with time and they’re worth the investment.”

Suddenly Thomas Danner appeared, this time behind us in the darkened doorway. He stood there looking suspiciously at us, ready to bolt like a lost deer in a neighborhood yard. We all looked at him and Mildred said: “Come in Tommy, these people are just leaving and they want to say goodbye.” Thomas approached timidly and when my mother put out her hand to shake his he touched the back of her hand gingerly. “Nice to meet you” my mother said. Thomas lost interest in her and turned to me. He had the eyes of an eight year old. I could see now that they were blue and limpid. As he dropped his head to look into my eyes, a shock of curved black hair fell over one eye. He looked at me and cocked his head like a confused puppy as if he was searching for something. Then, after a short period, he stopped. He seemed to have found nothing and walked away.

“I would ask you not to speak of what you have seen here today” said Mildred, “the last thing I want is to have a troop of meddling governmental psychiatric altruists here trying to save my husband from his quiet life.” My mother and I promised not to talk about our meeting and after the requisite pleasantries we got back into the Rover and headed for home through the thick African bush.

The drive home was pensive. Neither of us spoke for the longest time. When dusk was approaching my mother said: “Managia la miseria! I hope we get back before it gets dark. I hate driving at night.” Other than those words we didn’t speak until we were at the dinner table. When my father asked what had transpired my mother said: “I’ll tell you, but first I must swear you to silence.” My father chuckled but stopped short when he saw the look in my mother’s eyes. Being sworn to secrecy was not unusual in the 1960s with the most destructive war of all time still a vivid memory to most. “I swear then… I won’t tell anyone else.” My mother related the events of the day as my father ate his supper quietly and attentively. Then she brought out the black objects of her quest. Oddly, my father never questioned the amount my mother had given Mildred Danner and the next day he went to see Bishop Casalini of the Salesian Mission in Manzini. The Bishop trusted my father completely and when he told him of a charity that had to remain nameless, the Bishop agreed to make this charity one of the many for which funds would be collected. My father, through a friend at Barclay’s Bank, set up an account in the name of Mildred Danner and the collections were credited to that account. Mildred’s weekly supplier was discovered to be Henry Braithwaite and he was given the checkbook to get to Mildred.

We never saw Mildred and Thomas Danner again, but the overwhelming love that existed between the two has burned itself into my memory as one of the great loves the world will never know. When people speak of Romeo and Juliet, of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, of Tristan and Isolde all I can think of is Mildred and Thomas Danner and I hope and pray they find each other again, somewhere.