House of memories
[b]Small village of Mikhalki in Bereza District of Brest Region opens remarkable museum: House of Grandpa Khvedor[/b]Vera Ivanovna Zakharova calls to me, “Come in… please!” Then warns, “We only speak our way. Rural — as is traditional.”I am not very good at speaking with the Polesie dialect, though I try. Vera switches to Russian for me though and we speculate that the language of Polesie is very similar to Ukrainian. It’s not trasyanka (a mixture of Russian and Belarusian) — as some think.
Vera Ivanovna Zakharova calls to me, “Come in… please!” Then warns, “We only speak our way. Rural — as is traditional.”
I am not very good at speaking with the Polesie dialect, though I try. Vera switches to Russian for me though and we speculate that the language of Polesie is very similar to Ukrainian. It’s not trasyanka (a mixture of Russian and Belarusian) — as some think.
Three countries — one destiny
Vera is connected to Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, having been born in the village of Mikhalki, in Belarus, yet marrying a Russian and later living happily in Ukraine, which gave her citizenship. The saying seems to hold true that the home of your childhood has the tallest trees, widest rivers, longest paths and cosiest homes. Vera remembers the smell of her granny’s pies baking, milk and leather shoes. Her grandfather Fiodor (Khvedor, in the local dialect) Zyalenka was adept at mending shoes.
She recalls, “I remember well people bringing their shoes to grandpa. They sat here and talked. Nobody was in a rush, especially in winter. Meanwhile grandpa sat at the small table with drawers, working with a small hammer under a gas lamp, joining in with the chatter. He only repaired shoes in his free time, as the household was large.”
After receiving a diploma from the Belarusian Institute of Railway Engineers, in Gomel, Vera worked in Kuibyshev’s railroad department, where she met and married her husband, Valery. She then moved to Prypyat, not far from Chernobyl, for Valery’s job. After the nuclear power plant tragedy in 1984, the family was offered a new home in Kiev, where they lived until recently, working in communications.
Every year, Vera and Valery came to Mikhalki to stay at the cottage, along with her sisters and their families. They’d plant potatoes in the old vegetable beds next to grandpa’s house, admire the tulips and tidy things up. Now, they also run special tours of their own museum.
Abandoned or preserved?
Wealthy farmer Khvedor Zakha-rovich Zyalenka and his wife Yevdokia (or Ovdoska, as they say in Mikhalki) has always welcomed guests: for business or pleasure. God generously endowed Vera’s ancestors with large numbers of children and the house is the hub of this grand family. Khvedor had two daughters — Anna and Nadya, who were raised in the village. Anna married a man from the neighbouring village of Peshki while Nadya married Ivan Yudchits, also from Mikhalki. Nadya and Ivan initially lived with Khvedor until moving to their own home, and had four daughters: Tamara, Natalia, Maria and Vera.
The museum appeared unexpectedly after long discussions on whether to preserve the cottage or pull it down. The village council of Borki urged the family to make a decision, quoting the old saying that ‘an abandoned house is worse than an orphan’. The four sisters gathered to survey the house from their childhood and recalled:
— How grandpa Khvedor loved his grandchildren: eight girls and two boys;
— How he carried them astride his shoulders;
— The home-made tobacco, which their granny planted and he dried, cut and smoked in a pipe;
— How he hid money from granny in a chest which they were forbidden to open;
— How granny Ovdoska served him hot dishes from the oven: bean soup, borscht (beetroot soup) with sour cabbage, and zatirka (hot milk stew with dumplings).
Their grandfather’s little weakness was playing cards for money, which he did every Saturday evening after work. He bathed, shaved, put on his grey suit and went to the village to play cards. The house has seen so much life and love: for children, for people, for the household and for work — for life itself.
Vera had the idea for the museum and was eagerly helped by village friends who donated linen, rushniks (embroidered napkins), khodniki (clocks), jugs and baskets, searching cupboards and attics for old items. A rare village purse made from birch bark was found and donated, although it’s unknown for whom it was made.
To touch and to remember
This museum is, to my mind, one of a kind, being unlike a museum of rural life or a folk museum, being privately owned by the family yet displaying exhibits donated by the whole village. This Poleshuk home (belonging to a Polesie resident) sheltered a great household and holds not only their memories but those of many local residents. Khvedor Zyalenka had his own four acres of fields, two acres of forest and also some marshland with a pond and hay meadow. He also had a horse named Orlik, four cows, a bull, 20 sheep and five or six pigs…
He also had four grateful granddaughters. Vera tells us, “Some bean punches (bobovyne) were found in the upper level of the barn, where grandpa stored his tools and, even, his chest. No one was allowed to look but, now, visitors can touch everything. When the owners are absent other Mikhalki villagers open up, to welcome guests. Maria joins Vera and Valera in giving me a tour. “All our family is grateful to Borki agricultural production co-operation and to Borki village council for their help in taking care of the house and the garden. We’re also grateful to the teachers of Borki school for encouraging a love of our past and our history.”
Visitors from near and far
I ask who tends to visit the museum and Vera takes out a guestbook in which people write: besides messages in Belarusian, there are comments in Russian, English, and Polish. Visitors have included residents of the villages of the Bereza District: Levashki, Malechi, Peshki, Mikhalki, Borki, Lyaskovichi, Shlyakh-Pushcha and Signevichi. People have also travelled from Bereza, Kobrin, Malorita and Brest, as well as from Kiev, St. Petersburg, Khabarovsk and, even the USA. Two of Khvedor’s granddaughters live there now. Of course, school children also tend to visit.
The museum comprises not only the house but the barn and features tools and household items known to every villager. Vera recalls that, while tidying the barn, they found horse-cart wheels and a harness under the old straw. Grandpa was a penny-pincher and was very upset when Orlik, the horse, was taken to the collective farm.
Unfortunately, not all of us can say that we know our family history from three generations back to the same extent as this Mikhalki dynasty, or the history of our family’s native village.
Sitting at a table under an apple tree in Vera’s garden, we look over at Khvedor’s house. He and Ivan have passed away but the century old traditions and stories remain. Vera and I chat about life in villages today and our sense of identity. We conclude that happiness comes from sharing. It’s good to travel and see the world but, in honesty, there’s no place like home. Returning to our roots can be one of the most satisfying choices we make: at least in the summertime and in our dreams…
By Valentina Kozlovich