Originally from Estonia, Ekatrina (Kitty) Tamberg called herself a White Russian.
She pronounced her name “Kay-tee” which I can hear as my fingers begrudgingly type K-i-t-t-y.
Her father had carried significant power and weight as an 0fficial in Czar Nicholas’ employ. His position established a well-educated, cultured and dignified upbringing for Kitty and her siblings.
Because of her family’s closeness with the Royal Family and because of Kitty’s age, Princess Anastasia and she were often companions. Their vacation homes were next door in the forest by the Black Sea. Kitty’s stories revealed Anastasia’s feisty personality and playfulness. When I asked Kitty if she believed Anastasia might have survived the Uprising, as rumours were wont to suggest, Kitty’s immediate response was, “No!” followed by silence.
Kitty’s immediate family was also killed during the Bolshevik Revolution. Kitty was not at home when the family home was ransacked; the site of her family’s demise, I understand. She continued a life with bare essentials preserved by repressing and hiding her natural refinement.
Later, she met a handsome young man she slowly accepted as her sweetheart. She dared to love again. After a trip to Italy, he presented Kitty with a cameo pin and a marriage proposal. She said, “I knew he had good taste when I saw the cameo. Any good cameo must have at least seven different colours. Mine has more!”
Looking at the cameo, I easily count nine shades of colour.
Kitty’s new husband had been conscripted into the Russian army and, immediately after their marriage, was sent to the front lines to fend off enemy troops. He died in battle; the only news she ever received about his death. Devastated again, she vowed she would leave this country of sorrow. She resolved to join friends in the USA. To prepare, she had her husband’s and her wedding bands melted so a jeweler could add them as a frame to her cameo; hers being the delicate braid resting on top of his flattened band.
She escaped from Russia (I don’t have exact dates) with only a few articles of clothing and a well hidden cameo – the one pictured on the right. She never disclosed the painful details of her experience. Orphaned, widowed, childless and impoverished, she arrived in Vancouver eager to make connections with her ‘White Russian’ friends who had successfully escaped years earlier and settled in California.
She was too late. The United States had just closed its borders to all who hailed from a Communist country. The block lasted six years.
Numbed, Kitty bought a newspaper and asked an English speaking person to help her read the employment ads. A hotel in rural Saskatchewan needed a Chamber Maid. She did not need to speak English well to clean toilets and hotel rooms. She responded to the ad. Mr. G, owner of the Hotel, in a town at the end of a rail spur in the belly of the Canadian Prairie, wired her the funds for a rail ticket. She jumped on the first available train and found herself traveling for days, further and further away from her friends and deeper and deeper into endless farmland. In spite of her disappointment over being cut-off from her friends, she tasted a freedom that was last lived in childhood.
Chester and Catherine G. met the train and watched a tiny-framed, patrician lady with impeccable grooming, descend from the train as though she’d been aboard the Orient Express. Even before introductions, they knew they had just hired a manager.
Polishing her English as impeccably as the Hotel’s silver, she oversaw the entire hotel’s operation right down to the perfection of freshly pressed linens. “Mr. G would ask me if I was lonely.” Kitty told me. “I told him I would not invite company until I could serve them dinner with my own silver and my own linen.” When she was finally able to buy her set of silverware, she had each utensil engraved, “EKT” in a decorative script.
The only move that Kitty made from that little prairie town was after Catherine G. died. On Catherine’s deathbed, Kitty promised to take care of Catherine’s beloved. When the Hotel was sold, Kitty and “Mr. G”, the only name Kitty called him, moved to a solidly grand, old house in a nearby small city.
It was at this time, nearly thirty years after Kitty’s arrival, that I married “Mr. G’s” grandson. Grandpa was too ill to attend our wedding.
A year later, when Grandpa G. died, Kitty dutifully looked after every detail of the estate for the family. She made certain all requests were honoured. It was upon that occasion that I first met Kitty and it was love at first sight. We spent every spare moment learning about each other and confirming a mutually felt bond. The fifty plus years between our ages marred nothing.
I learned Grandpa loved Kitty. He proposed marriage several times. Though she loved him deeply, she would not enter into a relationship with him except as his housekeeper because of her promise to Grandma Catherine.
Kitty candidly expressed sadness over the lack of culture in her life. “What do you miss most about your life in Russia – besides friends and family?” I asked.
“Ballet”, she said. “My friend Madam Valda, now living in Calgary, was a beautiful ballerina. Now? Now she teaches ballet to Canadian football players! Why? So they can beat other teams. What a waste!”
“Do you watch the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on TV?” I asked. La crème de la crème of Canadian ballet, the RWBallet troupe had just secured enormous accolades and recognition from the USSR.
“Hurrumph,” she responded. “What do they know about dancing? When they dance, they display Hitler’s mustache!”
In the mid-1970s, in her eighties, Ekatrina Tamberg fell from a ladder as she cleaned the eaves of the old house. Her stubbornness maintained her dislike of spending spending “family” money on the house that would become another family asset once she died.
A few days later, Ekatrina Tamberg died of internal injuries, alone in a hospital on the Canadian Prairie. None of us knew she was injured. As much as I agonized over her having to die alone, it was a comfort to learn she held fast to the dignity ingrained from her roots.
True to her word, Kitty bequeathed her “Joan of Arc” International Sterling silverware to me. I use it with Kitty close at hand.
Guides, a request today. Please give Ekatrina K. Tamberg this message: “I love you, Kay-tee, and as you can see, I carry you in my heart, soul and being. You incredible woman.”
Consider it done. Your love will be given to this soul. We know that all of you is in the message.