My grandmother taught me

the taste of the sky

her chapped lips grasping at straws

and cigarettes.

 

My grandmother taught me

the smell of smoke

how it crawls on your skin

like memories.

 

My grandmother taught me.

Her voice curled around me like water, arms muddy and warm like a river bank. Rasping breath echoed in the shuffle of her footsteps. Unaware of the magnitude of her words, sometimes I didn’t listen. Older now, without her, I understand the rebelliousness of her stories – the ones where women were not princesses, but warriors; the ones where men were not heroes, but villains; and the ones where the devil won. Aspects of the supernatural were woven into far-flung stories that arced over head like the sky, horizons obscured by memory. I believed in the shape-shifting spirit who could become anything she wanted, I believed in the spirits in the forest, and I believed in the power of a single crow.

“Latcho djives, kako vrana. T’aves baxtalo!”

Maami Babka retold stories of kings and witches, with vibrant queens and hideous wizards. When she told of the mighty “somnakuno adžgar” who reigned down fiery breath from the mountains, he very quickly became a she and all the more mighty because of it. Women were powerful, she said. Women were the carriers of new life. Women walked out of the smoke of the Holocaust carrying our ancestors on their backs and in their bellies.

“Never be ashamed to be a woman!” She often said, cigarette dangling precariously from her lips. “Women gave birth to the world, taught her how to speak, and how to walk.”

It makes me laugh now, when I see Romani women portrayed as weak, ineffectual victims of themselves, their husbands, and our culture. It’s clear these people know nothing of us. We are warriors. We are the tent pole of our culture, holding up the sky. We are like butterflies – beautiful and delicate, but strong enough to fly thousands of miles to find comfort and rest.

Mami Babka was broad like the ocean, hard as stone yet soft as clay. Her voice carried our ancestors, their bones clattering on her teeth, a constant reminder of where we came from. Her arms, like water, carried us on. Now, without her, I feel the weight on my own shoulders, the bones catching in my throat. I am not broad, or deep, or hard. I am not strong. I am not a warrior.

 

My grandmother taught me

the weight of the sky.

 

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