“You have your father’s eyes,” they told me, scowling, as though I had come in the night and stolen them from him as he lay sleeping. “But, you have your mother’s heart,” they said, small smiles tugging their faces towards the light. I learned young that I was like a rag-doll made from the remembrance of other people; my father’s eyes, my mother’s heart. My grandmother’s face, and my grandfather’s hands. Just like the patchwork of clay that God used to create Romani, I too was made up of squares of so many past lives.
“tre parne jakha, hine kerel balamutji,” Kako told me over and again – your light eyes, they create trouble. My grandmother told me it didn’t matter what anyone said, because women were not born to be happy. We carry the words and the wombs of our mothers and our daughters like burdens upon our backs and we carry the hopes of our children like eggs in a basket. We are the sum of our families; no remainder, all carried.
My eyes, she said, had travelled far.
When I think of them now, my family, the chasm inside grows ever wider. I miss them. All of them. I don’t feel at home here and I’m beginning to think that I never will. My patchwork pieces are slowly fading and collapsing on themselves. There is an undercurrent of judgement that nestles beneath so many interactions and it wears me thin.
“Those eyes will bring you nothing but trouble,” Papu said to me, his own jakha bright, amber pools in the dark garden of his face. When I was four, my uncles called me belavjo čiriklo (blue bird); my aunts said I’d make a good wife – my cappuccino skin a good milk to a dark boy’s coffee. “But, your eyes,” they said, “are not our eyes”.
As I’ve become older, I’ve noticed that we all hold certain stereotypes close, as if they’ll somehow comfort us in the face of difference and otherness. My family held onto their darkness, their ambiguity, their difference as a means of surviving. They shrouded themselves in silence and tradition in order to quiet the voices that called from their past. How could I blame a people who literally lost everything to the Nazi war machine for their reticence to open their memories? How could I understand their motives and meanings when I was born in the relative safety of the post-war world? As I began to read about our history, viewed through non-Romani eyes and with little understanding of who we are, I realized that in many ways, my family’s stereotypes about ourselves were bolstered by outside views. In many ways, we were what they wanted us to be – cunning crows, thieves, vagabonds, mystics, and fortune-tellers.
They called us Gypsies and so that’s what we became.
In school we were expected to fail, to cause trouble, to leave early and so we did. I failed every test I took. I’m not talking by a few points, or having a bad day. I mean absolutely, hideously, bottom of the class, 5 or 10 percent grades. Nothing was expected of me, so I gave nothing in return. My family had strong beliefs about non-Romani education. Papu said that it was betjarsko (good for nothing, worthless); they didn’t teach me how to be a good romnji; how to be a good wife, mother, and strong speaker of my language. Maami said that they taught us how to forget who we are, that they parnjarel avri (whitewash, cover up) everything.
They were both right…
but, they were also very, very wrong.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Just as blue eyes don’t make me any less Romani, learning to exist in the non-Romani world doesn’t make me any less of a Romani wife and mother. Yet, I understand why my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives closed themselves behind their traditions. I understand why many of my relatives continue to do so. Their dark eyes tell a story that outsiders don’t want to hear. They tell of the horrors and injustices we’ve spent our lives wrapping in silk and burying beneath the dusty roads we travel – war, disease, death, deprivation, slavery, hatred, hatred, hatred. No class in any school ever taught me about my own people. I learned about Native American Indians, Scandinavian Lapp (Saami), Mongols, Vikings, and African Americans. I learned British and French poets, authors, singers, and scientists.
In history class I once read that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, though some others were killed, including Gypsies. I thought they meant a few – mistaken identity, the wrong place at the wrong time. My family kept the bones of the dead locked away in their hearts. No one told me that hundreds of thousands of Romani lost their lives, including more than one quarter of my own family.
Not until much later, anyway.
Sometimes, I feel like a dujevodjengero (a person with two souls). Caught between two worlds, somewhere between my Romani heart and my blue eyes. I wish very much my family could see where I am, where these parne jakha took me.