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A Christmas in Russia


The following story was told to me by my uncle Cyril Power from Branch, St. Mary's Bay. Cyril was a veteran of the Second World War, in which he served for six years (1939-45). My uncle has now passed on, so I'm sharing this story, in his own words, as closely as my memory allows.

It was the Christmas of 1944. I was posted on a warship going back and forth between Murmansk, Russia, and England. The fighting had slackened off a bit. I suppose even the Germans had some Christmas spirit in them. That Christmas Eve dawned cold and snowy. But we didn't mind too much because our ship was docked for two or three days in Murmansk. And we didn't mind the bad weather. A good number of us were from Newfoundland, so we were used to it. Added to that, we were told that we wouldn't have to do much work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Now, we didn't earn much money in the Navy, but then, we didn't need very much. Our grub was found and we had a warm bed. We had our uniforms, which we wore when we went ashore. I often said to the boys that sometimes we didn't have it as good as this at home. For all that, it was Christmas and I was homesick. As for the money, I had a few pounds saved, maybe what would be about $5 today. That was a nice bit of money in the '40s and I had met a girl in Greenwich. I had been hoping to get her a little Christmas box and have a bit left over for a drink or two in a pub. But, in times of war, you never know where you're going to be sent. And there I was, at 29 years of age, in the afternoon on a Christmas Eve, hanging around a crowded Russian dockside.

To pass away an hour or two, I found myself wandering in and out through some lanes and alleys, not far from our ship. By and by, I found a little shop that reminded me of shops in Newfoundland. I remember two things about that shop. It was dimly lit inside and on the counter was a beautiful woolen shawl, displayed for sale, just inside the door. All I could think of was how nice that shawl would look on my poor mother. 'If she could only wear it to midnight Mass tonight back in Branch,' I thought to myself. She had gone through so much. My father had spent seven years sick with tuberculosis before he died. Two of her children had suffered the same fate. Left on her own, with little or nothing, she had managed to raise the other five of us. And I guarantee you, in the dirty 1930s, that was no easy task. There were times she went to bed hungry so we could eat.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I glanced around the place and noticed that there was only one man inside at the counter and an old lady going around the shop. The shopkeeper could speak fairly good English. He wished me a "Merry Christmas" and remarked on the weather as he pointed around the room. He mentioned that my English money was good there and that I was welcome to look around. I was happy with the invitation, because I wanted to pass away a few hours before going back to the ship. So I hung around, picking up this and that, at the same time noticing that the old woman was watching me, sometimes out of the corner of her eye. She was a sick-looking, shabby poor thing. Her clothes were thin and raggedy. I could see that the shopkeeper didn't trust her, as he kept his eyes on her more than on me.

When she caught me looking at her, she smiled. She didn't have a tooth in her mouth, but she mumbled something to me. When the shopkeeper informed me that she was saying hello in Russian, I said hello back to her. And then, I don't know what made me do it, but I bought the shawl and gave it to her. Well, she cried and laughed and wrapped it around her. It just about covered her whole body. I'll never forget the sight of her going down that narrow street as the snow fell on her. The shawl was the nicest blue colour I ever saw.

After she left, I asked what her name was. He said as plain as he could: "Katya like Kate in your country." I think I was crying as I told him, "My mother's name is Kate. She lives in Newfoundland. Do you know where that is?" After I went back aboard the ship, I told some of the boys the story. I don't know if they believed me or not, but I'll tell you one thing, Marina, that Christmas Eve in Murmansk, Russia has never left my mind. You're always doing a bit of writing. Perhaps you can write it down sometime.

--

 

Well, Cyril died suddenly on May 18, 1998. I wish I had gotten around to writing this story sooner.

Marina Power Gambin was born and raised in her beloved Branch. She now lives in Placentia where she taught school for almost three decades. She can be reached at marinagambin@persona.ca.

It was the Christmas of 1944. I was posted on a warship going back and forth between Murmansk, Russia, and England. The fighting had slackened off a bit. I suppose even the Germans had some Christmas spirit in them. That Christmas Eve dawned cold and snowy. But we didn't mind too much because our ship was docked for two or three days in Murmansk. And we didn't mind the bad weather. A good number of us were from Newfoundland, so we were used to it. Added to that, we were told that we wouldn't have to do much work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Now, we didn't earn much money in the Navy, but then, we didn't need very much. Our grub was found and we had a warm bed. We had our uniforms, which we wore when we went ashore. I often said to the boys that sometimes we didn't have it as good as this at home. For all that, it was Christmas and I was homesick. As for the money, I had a few pounds saved, maybe what would be about $5 today. That was a nice bit of money in the '40s and I had met a girl in Greenwich. I had been hoping to get her a little Christmas box and have a bit left over for a drink or two in a pub. But, in times of war, you never know where you're going to be sent. And there I was, at 29 years of age, in the afternoon on a Christmas Eve, hanging around a crowded Russian dockside.

To pass away an hour or two, I found myself wandering in and out through some lanes and alleys, not far from our ship. By and by, I found a little shop that reminded me of shops in Newfoundland. I remember two things about that shop. It was dimly lit inside and on the counter was a beautiful woolen shawl, displayed for sale, just inside the door. All I could think of was how nice that shawl would look on my poor mother. 'If she could only wear it to midnight Mass tonight back in Branch,' I thought to myself. She had gone through so much. My father had spent seven years sick with tuberculosis before he died. Two of her children had suffered the same fate. Left on her own, with little or nothing, she had managed to raise the other five of us. And I guarantee you, in the dirty 1930s, that was no easy task. There were times she went to bed hungry so we could eat.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I glanced around the place and noticed that there was only one man inside at the counter and an old lady going around the shop. The shopkeeper could speak fairly good English. He wished me a "Merry Christmas" and remarked on the weather as he pointed around the room. He mentioned that my English money was good there and that I was welcome to look around. I was happy with the invitation, because I wanted to pass away a few hours before going back to the ship. So I hung around, picking up this and that, at the same time noticing that the old woman was watching me, sometimes out of the corner of her eye. She was a sick-looking, shabby poor thing. Her clothes were thin and raggedy. I could see that the shopkeeper didn't trust her, as he kept his eyes on her more than on me.

When she caught me looking at her, she smiled. She didn't have a tooth in her mouth, but she mumbled something to me. When the shopkeeper informed me that she was saying hello in Russian, I said hello back to her. And then, I don't know what made me do it, but I bought the shawl and gave it to her. Well, she cried and laughed and wrapped it around her. It just about covered her whole body. I'll never forget the sight of her going down that narrow street as the snow fell on her. The shawl was the nicest blue colour I ever saw.

After she left, I asked what her name was. He said as plain as he could: "Katya like Kate in your country." I think I was crying as I told him, "My mother's name is Kate. She lives in Newfoundland. Do you know where that is?" After I went back aboard the ship, I told some of the boys the story. I don't know if they believed me or not, but I'll tell you one thing, Marina, that Christmas Eve in Murmansk, Russia has never left my mind. You're always doing a bit of writing. Perhaps you can write it down sometime.

--

 

Well, Cyril died suddenly on May 18, 1998. I wish I had gotten around to writing this story sooner.

Marina Power Gambin was born and raised in her beloved Branch. She now lives in Placentia where she taught school for almost three decades. She can be reached at marinagambin@persona.ca.

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