During World War II, my grandfather Alexey was a minesweeper in the Russian Army on the Karelian Front. Fairly early in the war, he was wounded, losing sight in one eye, most of his hearing, and the use of one of his hands. Because of these injuries, he was able to return home to his wife and two daughters. My grandparents had three more children after the war, the youngest of whom is my father.
In 1952, Alexey began to lose the vision in his remaining eye. To help the family get along better, he decided to return home to the place where he grew up. He found an unoccupied hill in Alekhovshchina, a village north of Saint Petersburg, close to his brothers, sisters, and cousins. He took his house apart, log by log, a Roman numeral carved onto each one, and floated it down the Oyat River to its present location and reconstructed it. With family close by, my grandfather felt more at ease. When he completely lost his sight, he was unable to be a full-fledged provider. Alexey’s children helped him with the only labor he could perform, weaving baskets and rope bags. My grandmother and the two older girls, Alevtina and Ludmila, ran the household and raised the younger three children.
More than sixty years later, the house is still occupied by my aunts, from the months of April to September. The two women, who spent their youth working in big cities and never married, have relied on each other for support and companionship all their lives.
Alevtina’s siblings and their spouses each used their vacation time in turn to take care of the house, spend time with their father, and introduce their own children to the village. I too spent my summers there, watched by my aunts and uncles, going with them to gather berries in the woods or fish in the river. When I was old enough, I was sent to buy fresh bread in the shop or get milk from the collective cow farm behind the house.
For me, a city girl, time in the village was both exciting and difficult. As I got older, I was very
bored at times, so I began to read, descending from my room only to eat at strictly appointed
meal hours—tea at 11:30, supper at 7:00—be late and go hungry. That’s really where books
happened for me, in the attic of my aunts’ house, in a small room that my father built when he
got married. I’m much more influenced by writers than artists or photographers. Mikhail
Bulgakov, Gabriel García Márquez, and Haruki Murakami introduced me to “Magical Realism”—a
world that I was already inhabiting.
A talking cat or a rain of marigolds makes perfect sense to me, because that’s how I experience the village—or maybe it becomes true in the village of my photographs.
Recently, as an adult, I have been spending my summers with my aunts, photographing their habits and occupations and the small world that surrounds them. The images I have produced thus far, both real and imagined, are part of a process of forgetting and remembering. Life there is never easy, and the hard realities of my aunts’ physical labor jarred me when I first return. But then my memories and my imagination flood my perceptions, and Alekhovshchina begins to transform back into a magical place all over again.
My aunts’ life is bound to the cyclical nature of things. Alevtina wakes up at 7:00 and gets firewood to heat up the stove for oatmeal. A large kettle of water bubbles on the iron surface: soup and potatoes for lunch. When Ludmila wakes up, my aunts braid and pin up their hair. Breakfast is a quick and quiet affair—it’s time to get to work. While the grass is damp with morning dew, there are chores to do around the house. The floors are washed once a week; there are clothes that need mending. If the weather is dry, my aunts head into the garden, where there is always weeding and watering to be done, ants to be eradicated, fences to be repaired, little wooden borders to be built for the vegetable beds. In July, they make jam from currants and gooseberries from the garden.
11:30 is teatime—a small ceramic cup, a candy cut into tiny pieces, bread with homemade jam. A few facts about the weather are exchanged.
Each sister is in charge of specific duties. Alevtina cooks, goes to the store, gets milk from a cousin, performs most of the manual labor. Ludmila cleans up, weeds, arranges woodpiles in the shed, knows where everything is stored. She is a shy and quiet woman, the one everybody in the family protects. She likes to complain and grumble, but everything she touches becomes beautiful. She’s the one who brings flowers into the house or selects the fabric for the sisters’ dresses. When she sews or cleans berries her soft, methodical movements are graceful, like a child’s.
I have been spending summers with my aunties for seven years now, and it has been a bittersweet experience. They are older and more in need of companionship. Though I found them somewhat alien when I was a child—having never had children, they didn’t know how to talk to me—I am now in love with everything about them.
The very anachronisms and quirks that offended my childish sensibilities are now what draw me to them. But it has been hard for me to watch them melt away little by little.
For example, the first year I was impressed to see Alevtina wield an axe to chop firewood and Ludmila scramble up a huge pile of discarded planks at the sawmill that replaced the collective cow farm. These days there is much less activity and the television takes up more and more of their attention.
The sisters talk very little, exchanging only facts or news. As with my grandfather twenty-five years ago, I ask them for stories. To appease me, Alevtina will sometimes recount tales from her college years: the time she bought an underground, banned book; the way her girlfriends played with her hair, draping it on their own heads; the time she asked everyone at her dormitory for a few kopecks so she could buy tickets for a concert; how she once fainted at the movie theater because she was so overcome by feeling.
Ludmila will not tell personal stories, but she knows hundreds of poems and songs by heart and can speak at length on any era of Russian history, remembering all the different Vladimirs, Igors, and Vladislavs that have gone to war with one another over the centuries. Her sense of fashion is as impeccable as it is unique. If not for her pronounced shyness, I think she could have been a fashion designer. Most women her age have switched to modern textiles, whatever is available at the local shops, but Ludmila has bolts of Soviet cotton stored away in old valises and can pick out an unexpected fabric that surprises with its boldness of color or the simple sweetness of its delicate flowers. Even the basic wool socks and vests that she knits have a twist—a Scandinavian design at the ankle or shiny red buttons as trim.
Now that they are less active, my aunties ask me not to take so many photographs. I spend more time just watching them, my camera put away, and I have started reading in the attic again. The labor of running this small farm and old house has kept the two of them fit and given them an occupation. They have kept close to their family and their land, maintaining customs passed down for many generations. Their life revolves around the patterns of days and seasons—the preparations, the chores, the satisfactions of self-sufficiency. Without Alevtina’s determination that they continue to keep up the house in the village, the sisters would most likely be sitting alone in their own apartments in Lodeynoye Pole and Veliky Novgorod, where they spend their winters.
Still, their strength is ebbing, and they don’t like me to see how tired they get performing actions that were once easy. I admire my aunties’ fortitude, strength of character, and reliance on each other—for refusing to give up. Leaving the village and returning again divides our time into chapters, as our book moves toward its last pages.
When I took pictures during my first visit, I had an idea to shoot a “little story.” But once I started, I knew I had to keep going, that I wanted to capture the larger experience of being with them, in the house, in the village. Taking pictures was also a way to reintroduce myself to my aunts—to share what I do.
In the beginning I asked them to pose. To unbraid their hair or rearrange the furniture or do a puzzle—to recreate memories I had from childhood. As time has gone on, I’ve let them take the lead more and more, often simply recording their actions. We go back and forth, with Alevtina telling me to get up early the next morning to accompany them to the forest or with me asking Ludmila to weave a wreath of dandelions so I can make a portrait of her wearing a crown.
These photographs are interpretations of truth—a retelling of what happens during my aunts’ summer days. But they are true to how I experience being in their world: a place both real and enchanted.
Editors’ Note: In 2014, the series “Aunties” was awarded the prestigious CDS/Honickman First Book Prize, awarded every two years to a particularly worthy publication.