“I’m ashamed,” daj would say randomly as she worked. I never understood what she meant. The divisions in my family, in my world, were as natural as the fading between night and day. Women here, men there. Everything was always in its place – divided body, divided kitchen, divided laundry, divided life.
Shame, in my family had a specific meaning. It was a reference to being unclean, unchaste, or immodest. Shame was permanent, transferable, and non-negotiable. If my great-great grandmother had brought shame to the family, if we had become unclean (degeš) because of it, then every one of us would bear that mark, forever.
When I was sixteen, I discovered my mother’s shame.
It was accidental; It was heart-wrenching; and it became my shame too, in that one, bright, moment.
I knew that my mother wrestled with more demons than the rest of us; the sunken, treacherous pools of her eyes could take the breath from you with a single glance. Some days she didn’t speak at all, except with the stinging slap of her hands against my flesh.
My culture demands that I do not share certain discoveries, that my lips remain sealed for all eternity. We didn’t talk about it in my family; we didn’t talk about anything, except to gossip about trivialities over the shelling of peas, or the kneading of dough. The Holocaust was a secret, referred to mostly in passing as “that hungry smoke” or “the time of the dogs”, it was hardly ever addressed, except sometimes in the darkness of night and the bottom of a whisky bottle.
My mother never spoke a word of Romani, unless it was to her sister. If I said anything in Romani, it was ignored until I rephrased it in English. My grandmother, Baba Edita treated me the same way. Romani was, in part, our ladžavipe – the whisper behind our secrets and our hidden shame. Baba and Papo were Bergitka Romani, originally from Poland, but their families no longer spoke either Polish or Romani. They understood the words just fine, but insisted English was the only way to a quiet life. They blamed the Holocaust, the oppression, the racism, on our language. Baba was harsh on her daughters, steering them away from traditional folklore and culture, into the confusing world of in between.
In many ways, it was both their salvation and their downfall.
Many older Romani will tell you that a Rom who doesn’t speak Romani, is no Rom at all. In keeping her children from their own culture, Baba made their lives difficult. Many of the families in our town wanted Romani-speaking daughters for their sons, to raise čače Romani kids. My mother was old when she got married, at least old for tradition. She was 16. She was also already phagerdi – broken, and that’s a long story, with many words, none of which will ever be spoken.
Maami Babka was everything that Baba Edita was not; she hated speaking English, thought gadžikaňi school was a waste of time, and encouraged us to embrace our heritage. There was always tension between the two halves of my family – to be more or less of who I was. It was at once shameful to speak Romani and shameful not to speak it.
Over the years, the less won out and my own, personal shame crept in.
I understand written Romani, I even understand much of spoken Romani… I pretty much refuse to speak or write much anymore. I’ve had many Romani question my authenticity because I cannot write the language well and I refuse to speak because, as my grandmothers both used to tell me, you can never undo a word.
So, I am ashamed. I am ashamed that I cannot speak, that I will not speak. I am ashamed that I am only half of a Romani woman. I read and listen and sometimes write when I feel brave, but this shame is deeper than that. It has cut out my tongue and stolen my strength.
ladžata loljiljom thaj ačhiljom bilaveskeri …