A little girl Vera Zenko from Volozhin was chasing the cart, where fascists were taking away her pregnant mother, – and they took pity and threw her off the back of that cart. Vera is 91 now, she calls her life “the last seasons” and recites her biography through what’s inside her wardrobe.
Vera and I met in Belarussian Volozhin, she was on her way to a pharmacy. She was wearing huge sunglasses, a checkered dress, crimson socks and shoes. That was love from the first sight. I came to her to get aquainted and in five minutes I was sitting at the table in her house, and she was showing me her outfits and telling their story. Later I came to visit Vera in Volozhin a few times, staying the night.
She has lived all her life here, and within that time multicultural Polish Volozhin became Soviet, and then Belarussian. Her 4 brothers and sisters were blown all over Ukraine and Belarus. Vasil and Olga have left this life already, Nina and youngest Galina are left. Their parents were of peasant origin – the mother worked the land, and the father was “literate” and worked in local authorities, as we would call them now. Vera stayed in her home town – got married here, took her husband’s name Perepecha, had three children, worked and brought up grandchildren.
On the first of January Vera turned ninety-one. She is not afraid of getting old. Once Vera told me, that she’s living her last seasons, when every spring can become the last one. She likes to dress up. All her life is inside her wardrobe: every dress has its own story, its own memory.
“This is the end of my life. All important things have already happened and passed. Childhood, hunger, war, love, kids. My father was shot by the Germans. My mother was left alone, pregnant with Galina and the four of us. I keep a hand-made belt in memory of my dad. He never hit us, but I was naughty and once he threatened me, that if I didn’t stop being bad, he’d punish me. I got scared. Stopped that behaviour and still keep the belt.
I first saw myself in the mirror when I was about ten, not sure. We were selling dock to the jews. They had a mirror in their house. I got frustrated when I saw my reflection, because I was pale, skinny and wearing a plain coat. I ran home and cried. My mum led me to a bucket of water and told me that I was the most beautiful.
We were paid five kopecks for a bag of dock. My sister and I bought beads. I chose the leafy-green ones. Went to the well to get water, bent over to look if it was deep, and – bam, my beads fell down. I was crying for so long! They are probably still there.
So much happened over these years. I achieved everything myself: my school certificate and my job. At that time you didn’t need a lot of literacy. Four years of Polish school, then the Soviets came, I had one year of school, then the Germans came. I didn’t attend their school. They started to recruit young people, like the Soviets had pioneers. Me and a few other kids got scared and ran away. After the war was over, I finished the tenth year of the part-time school. I was already working at the passport office at that time. I had nice handwriting and they took me right away.
I started having money. Could sew and buy outfits. We were coming up with the ideas of dresses ourselves. We drew the designs from the people in town streets. Mother made the cutting patterns. My sisters and I did the stitching. I loved hats. I would go to Minsk on a business trip and make sure to buy myself a new hat.
I was extravagant. I liked dressing up and had a lot of admirers. But I loved Sergey, my husband. We were friends for five years. He saw me walking outside with my friend in winter. It was a thing among the young people in our town – they would get together and walk around. The boys looked out for girls. Then followed them home.
I got myself a plush coat. My uncle put wooden heels to my rubber boots. Mum would tie me a headscarf and pin a brooch, so that you could see all the flowers. Sergey fell in love with that headscarf. He told me afterwards, that he didn’t see me or my friend, just the flowers on the headscarf. And I was thinking, why this soldier kept following us. So we have lived together for thirty-one years. Had three children. Got along well. Had no time to fight.
There was a trend for golden teeth. I wanted golden crowns so much. Sergey tried to talk me out of it. But I still got them done. I often remember how he held me on his lap, hugged, told me he loved me.
Sergey died of oncology after the Chernobyl. Burnt down in several months. All his money died with him, and I was left alone. The children were still students, I had to help them. I would give them all the pension, and put my teeth on the edge, so it was. When my mother-in-law was dying, she gave me her notebooks with prayers. Once I helped a woman to cure her finger, just read a prayer over it. She got better. Then the people started visiting me, asking for help. I didn’t say no. Didn’t take money but didn’t reject a piece of bread. That’s how I survived.
I’m not a beauty, have a long nose. I would compliment myself, then look – I am really pretty. Every nose suits a different type of face. The young are all beautiful. I have a full album of these photographs. And the life flew by like one day. Yours will fly by too. I’m thinking, it’s time to start giving out my dresses. Do I need them? If I die, they’ll start throwing them away. And now I can give them to people by myself. I don’t have a favourite dress. The one I’d wear would be a favourite at the moment. I will show now you what wealth I have. I am so wealthy, I just don’t have father and mother.