MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD IN BELARUS AND UKRAINE
OF THE ARTIST'S YOUNGER SISTER
ALEUTYNA STALONY-DOBRZAŃSKI (EXCERPT)
I was born in 1906, far away — in Czerykov, Belarus. Czerykov was a district capital, a small but widespread town on a high bank of the Sozh River, wide and slowly flowing to the Dniepr. It smelled of orchards and the river, and of meadows and pine forests that hummed wonderfully in summers and winters. My parents, the only ones, the best, the most beautiful. Feliks and Anna, are with me, always dogging, in the fullness of their nearness, the years after their death are just a formality. My brothers, Adaś and Senio, that they are grey-haired now doesn't matter either. I can still see the big, wooden, one-storey house, its large doors, windows, porch with wooden columns, and tall stairs. I can see the yards, stables, barn, pigsty and the dog kennel. And the dovecote on the very high pole. Through the window, down the ladder I'm running to the orchard. Adaś' apple tree has creamy apples. Senio's — red with stripes. Mine are rosy. There was our garden too, we cultivated it ourselves and made perfumes from flowers. Next the big orchard, plums, cherries, raspberries, and currants. Behind the wicket door the steepness with soft, thick, and fragrant grass, on which we rolled down to the path and further on to the bridge and highroad. Behind the highroad old willows and the river – a huge one. Horses and cows are in water up to their knees, drinking unhurriedly. Lots of ducks and gooses. And fishermen with rods. On the shore our boat on the chain. Daddy used to float us with Mom and Auntie upstream to the town. On its way back the boat drifted on its own, soundless. A larger fish would dabble sometimes, and circles would spread far and wide on the river.
1914 – War! Endless and countless wagons from distant Poland fleeing from Germans. Our Mom and everybody in the town was helping them with everything they could. 1917 – Revolution. Nobody knows anything, it's getting more and more dreadful. They say there is no hunger in Ukraine. Over there, in Pryluki, is our Grandmamma and the other Auntie, they own a house there. We found a brave man, who brought us, in exchange for a wagon and pair of horses, to the railway over a hundred versts away. That's how our childhood crashed, but even this dangerous journey was just a novelty for us children.
Border, search, Germans. I was holding tightly to my Mom. No one knows when a southbound train will arrive. Only endless wagons with black-earth are going from Ukraine to Germany. Not soon we arrived to Pryluky near Poltava. Another town, another, smaller river, another house. The vast, large orchard, the huge walnut in front of the house, the table underneath, and the «summer kitchen» in the garden. Trees were easy to climb. To our surprise there were different apples on the same apple tree, and different pears on the same pear tree. So could grow them our Grandfather, Mom's Dad, Korilij Kowalenko. The German occupation was over. Every minute or so machine guns.... a new authority. Only a few new what authority it was. The most dreadful when there was no authority at all... then at night you had to sit in the barricaded basement. Suddenly we had grown up. With my younger brother we looked for fodder for the cow, which nourished us. In streets we collected remains of hay and straw for the winter. Older brother Adaś, then fourteen, chopped wood, dug peat, and even loaded wagons. It was then that he strained his heart. Yet not everything was so grown up, there was a calf, we taught it to jump over fences, to drag a sled and ourselves in winter, when work was already over, in moonlight. When heat had come, we went to work as hired hands to weed fields. They paid us with bread, speck, and salt. Salt was the most precious. In autumn, when days became shorter, my older brother Adaś has the «Studies». A few youngsters in the apartment of a neighbour painter drew and painted «for the hell of it» still lives and portraits. By a kerosene lamp.
My poor Mom was lying in bed with terrible carbuncles on her low back, of malnutrition. I found a herbalist. Don't worry, he said, when you will run short of what I'm giving you, just pick up some marigolds, pour some alcohol over their petals, apply compresses when the sores begin to ripen, squeeze them and lay compresses again. When Mom was lying, I was the housewife, already sixteen years old I knew how to milk a cow and bake a bread. I went to school in the evenings, there were no books, so Dad substituted them for me.
Pryluki, vast and endless orchards and streets. I had never seem wider streets. Large market squares, two huge Orthodox churches. And other two, smaller, far away in the outskirts of the town. The enormous dome on the big, white church. Three entrances, huge columns. High on the outside, over the cornices, already barely visible, old pictures — icons. And just these paintings renovated themselves. On a bright, sunny market day, in front of the whole town. They became clear and colourful. On the eve of the church's scheduled conversion to cinema. The Militia, authorities, fire ladders, «experts»... and it turned out that even cracks in these old paintings were intact, and also the cobwebs and spiders in the corners. I remember everything, and also that I traded Mom's jacket for salt that day.