She’s lived from 1947 and is still going strong in 2013. She’s been met by the Ku Klux Klan, and has risen from the dead. This woman is one of the most brilliant and fascinating people in the world, and could only be Serena Verzhinsky.
In her first 18 months of life, Serena lived in a small town outside of Birmingham, Alabama on a farm and then moved into Birmingham to go to school. In Birmingham during that time, there were riots for school integration and equality, and marches. Her earliest memory, which turned out to be a major influence in her life, was when she was very young.
“I was about four years old and I woke up in the middle of the night in my bedroom with my sister,” Serena said. “We lived…our bedroom was on the second floor of the boarding house, facing the street, and the windows were all orange and I thought, ‘Well, it must be daylight!’ although it was very dark, so I ran over to the window because I heard noise and saw the light and wanted to see what was going on, and when I looked outside, there was a truck coming up the street with a lot of people yelling and throwing things, and there was a cross burning in our front yard. When the truck got closer to the street, someone threw something up at the window where I was standing and it smashed on the window; I thought, because I was only four, that someone had found my missing teddy-bear and was throwing it up to me, but it turned out to be a molotov cocktail and my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Fritzi grabbed me out of the window, and that was my first awakening into what a political environment in which I live.”
Serena claims her whole life has been one huge political environment after another. She’s gone on marches, learned to play guitar by sitting around, listening to folk songs being sung by the American Communists, her favorite folk singer and songwriter being Woody Guthrie.
“I met Woody Guthrie when I was about five, six,” Serena said. “My mother and Woody Guthrie’s wife had gone to school together and we went to visit them in a place where a lot of American communists hid out which was a little farmhouse, and the Weavers were there. The Weavers was the musical group that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger formed, and the first guitar I ever picked up belonged to Woody Guthrie. And I was sitting on Pete Seeger’s knee, and we were singing and playing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ and I guess that was highly influential because I went on to become a folk singer by the age of 12, and I played mandolin tuned like a baritone ukulele and went out and about to certain places and played all kinds of little cool folk songs to people, and they seemed to enjoy them very much, and that was when I got my first musical bit.”
Serena has played in places all over the world. Her regular was playing in a little place in Germany called the Schwartz Katz Keller. She was the main entertainment on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights in the early to mid 1990s.
“I am published in the music field, but not under my own name,” Serena said. “I was the production manager of Screen Gems Music Publications in the mid 1970s and wrote lyrics for a man by the name of Jack Merrick who stole them, but c’est la vie.”
Other than singing and song writing, Serena also has a talent for playing the guitar and piano, cooking, dancing, painting, drawing, and sculpting. She has worked as a ballet dancer, zookeeper, teacher (middle, high school, and college levels in English), and a scorer for the THEA (Teacher Certification) test. She also owns her own business, Chester’s Typing, as an editor. The business was named after her cat, Chester.
“Chester was my cat who sat in my lap all the time when I typed and got in my way,” Serena said. “He was named Chester because he limped. He had a steel pin in his left leg from his knee to his hip due to an accident when he was a child of five weeks. Back when I was growing up, there was a television show, some of you may have seen it on TV Land or Nick at Nite, called Gunsmoke, and one of the characters on there was a deputy sheriff named Chester who had a stiff leg and he walked around with a stiff leg, so my little, tiny kitten with a steel pin in his leg became Chester, and he was always sitting in my lap and making comments on what I was typing.”
While she was growing up, Serena wanted to be an ichthyologist, not an editor or a scorer, and still does.
“We’re even thinking about buying a place on the coast so that I can be close enough to do that,” Serena said. “Not to just eat the fish, I want to study them. And turtles, and manatees, and anything else you got that grows down there.”
From growing up, Serena has seen the world change. That includes in raising children which she did at the age of 17.
“I was, of course, not happy to find myself in that situation, however, I was determined, for some strange and bizarre reason, to have my child and take care of him,” Serena said.
Back then, it was easier, well, more than it is now. Her main goal was to finish school.
“I took every college course I could afford, arranged for babysitters, took jobs immediately so I could afford to go to school,” Serena said. “I spent a couple of years trying to establish myself either in work and in school to be able to divorce him [her husband, her son’s father] and move out of my house with my son, which I did. It was difficult, but it wasn’t that difficult. It was easier then than it is now. If you have intelligence and can figure out that your responsibility is to your son first and yourself second, it shouldn’t be a problem, but I don’t recommend it in this day in age, it’s so difficult. Everything is so expensive. Back then I could rent a whole house for $50 a month. I might not have made but about $350 a month, but I got to where I was making, by the time my son was in first grade, I was making nearly a thousand dollars a month. I had a pretty good job: I was a typesetter in the newspaper, and I was putting myself through college, gone the fast track, and I was taking anywhere from 16-22 hours a semester and I was on scholarship, and played in a rock and roll band. I had a lot to do. It’s just a matter of knowing your priorities and knowing that you have someone else to lead in a proper direction. When you know the difference between right and wrong, you can go in that proper direction and you need to take your off-spring with you. I don’t know…I think that’s what was mostly going through my mind. I’ve kind of lived that way. I also enjoyed, immensely, my son and watching him grow; it’s an amazing thing to watch – a human come to life right in front of your very eyes and grow and become intelligent. I think I thought it would be worth it then, and I know it was worth it now.”
Serena always wished to have more children, but that was taken away when she found out she had cancer at the age of 22.