A pebble for the fortress of hope

Note: This is a post I have been working on for two months. Too much work with little ones to get it done It actually happened at the very beginning of December.

At the end of the year, Dusan often has to work late or take overnight work trips, as companies scramble to get surveying projects finished by annual deadlines. On one such evening recently, when Dusan was away, Shaye and Marik and I were enjoying a rare relaxed moment with dinner done and the kitchen not a terrible mess. Shaye was hankering after a new book to read, grumpily looking through all her books. So, I pulled down her “lifebook” from a top shelf. I had shown it to her before but not in some time and she had mostly been interested in ripping the pictures out and destroying my careful work on her scrapbook. But now, I thought she had pretty much left the book-destroying phase and actually started listening to the stories, not just the rhythm of the words, so it was worth a try.

Marik was playing with blocks on the floor, so Shaye climbed up into my lap and I opened the book and started from the beginning, telling her the story. At first she was mainly interested in looking at the pictures and wanted to know who that baby was. She looked at me incredulously when I insisted that it was her. But as I went on she quieted and listened with a serious expression as the story of her birth and adoption unfolded. I have been told several things by “experts” and psychologists about talking to small children about adoption. First, they say always talk about it openly. Then, they say keep it simple and positive. You don’t have to include all the traumatic details. You simply have to tell the truth – perhaps only part of the truth but everything you say has to be true. They also say that children under three have very little chance of understanding much of the story, so it is good to “practice” on them, so that you can talk about these sensitive things with ease when they are old enough to notice your reactions and understand the story.

I tried to keep it to the basics. Some parents stick to “Mama and Papa found you at the orphanage and brought you home and we were sooo happy. Some babies are born into families and some are adopted. All are loved the same.” I have a problem with that. The last two sentences are good and I use that sentiment in explanation a lot when the subject of a friend’s pregnancy comes up or when an older child asks about how our kids were adopted. But the story starting with the baby in the orphanage is a problem. To me it borders on untruth because it hints that the baby grew there, just like some babies grow in their mama’s tummy. So, my version is something like this:

“You grew inside a woman’s belly and then you were born, so she is your birthmother. You were born in the winter in a hospital. Outside there was snow all around but you were warm and safe inside the hospital and the doctor said you were a really strong and healthy baby. Here’s a picture from when you were a little tiny baby. Your birthmother (I use her first name too because I know it and it is more personable) loved you very much but she knew that she couldn’t take care of you. She didn’t have any place for you to sleep or clothes or food for you. She wanted you to have everything you need and she wanted you to have a mama and a papa, so she asked the social worker aunties to help you find your real mama and papa. They said that your birthmother loved you a lot and did everything just right to make it so you could get to mama and papa really soon. And she took good care of you when you were growing in her belly, so that you are healthy and strong. The social worker aunties took you to live in an orphanage and then they started looking for your mama and papa. Here is a picture of Mama and Papa with no baby Shaye. Mama and Papa were looking everywhere to find you. We knew that you were somewhere waiting for us and we wanted to hold you and take care of you. One day the social worker aunties told us to come to the office and they showed us this picture of you. It was the first picture of you we ever saw. Then, we went to the orphanage and there you were, sleeping in your little baby carriage. See this picture. There you were sleeping and here Papa is holding you for the first time and here Mama is holding you for the first time. And here is one of the aunties who took care of you at the orphanage. And here is the little yellow bed where you slept. And here we are all ready to go home. And here is when we got home. And here we went on a trip together. And here is your first birthday party with Lukas and Evelinka…”

By that time, Shaye started to recognize herself in the pictures and she became even more interested. She began flipping back in the book to see herself younger and it seemed as though she might even believe me that she was the baby in the first pictures. Finally at the end of the book there were two random, loose pictures I had not glued in. One was a picture of me and Shaye with both of us grinning ecstatically and the other was a picture of the two of us again, this time with Shaye crying and me soberly comforting her. Shaye picked them up and pointed to them in turn, “Happy and sad!”

“Yes,” I said automatically. “That’s happy Shaye and happy Mama and sad Shaye and sad Mama.” Then, I had an inspiration. “What do you feel like right now, happy or sad?”

To my amazement she spoke in a serious tone, “I sad.”

Then, in one of those lightening quick changes of attention of the two-year-old, she pointed up at my recorder, sitting on its high shelf and demanded it. I gently reminded her that that is Mama’s special recorder and Shaye has her own. She suddenly started to sob. She didn’t screech or throw the kind of tantrum, she would normally throw to protest the injustice of being denied the use of my special recorder. Instead she sobbed in a subdued manner. Marik miraculously continued to play happily on the floor, so I held Shaye on my lap and rocked her. Shaye is very much capable of being heartbroken or throwing a tantrum and then, in a second, leaping up to go investigate something of interest in the other room. She rarely wants to snuggle for more than a brief moment and doesn’t really have time for prolonged tears most of the time. But this time, she cried for a full hour and a half, until I finally put her to bed early.

The next day was Friday, the day we have set for our Romani-language teacher/childcare helper to come for the morning. Her name is Zdena. She is a fairly typical Romani woman, from what I have seen. She is in her forties and still reasonably pretty. She dresses like a teenager, with tight pants, finicky black shoes and thin jackets, too light for the season. She smokes cigarettes but only in the morning and evenings and, after I merely asked if she smoked on her first appearance, she no longer even smells like smoke when she arrives. She also has asthma. She has a primary school education and only occasionally can find work as a janitor.

She behaves as if my babysitting job is a significant thing for her, though I pay her only $25 for four-hours of work once a week. We can barely afford it but this is one thing we have decided is worth tightening budgets elsewhere. At that, I’m paying above the usual wage for such work, which would be $5 an hour, but I told her that I pay more because I want something special. I want someone who will not just take care of my children but speak the Romani language to them and talk pretty much non-stop the whole time. Zdena has taken it to heart and tries very hard to do it, although she is often discouraged by the long hours of talking to a child who doesn’t understand.

She has two grown children and one 14-year-old. Their stories tell plenty of the situation of Roma here. Her oldest daughter was somehow able to make her way to England, where she is living happily with her boyfriend and working at a job that she likes. She is constantly trying to talk Zdena into emigrating to join her, but Zdena is nervous about making such a huge change. Her son is 18, has a two-year-old son himself and has fallen in with a “bad crowd”. She won’t say much about that but she says he doesn’t want to look for work, is completely unmotivated, angry and sullen. The connotation is that the “bad crowd” is either doing drugs, doing something criminal, operating as a gang or all three. Her younger daughter was beat up repeatedly at school in Prague, so Zdena sent her to live with a grandmother in Slovakia for safety’s sake and to keep her away from the gangs and drugs of the ghetto.

Shaye has thus-far been an ideal pupil for Zdena, though Zdena cannot know it, never having had my preschool-age students of English. Most of my students require much more entertainment than she offers Shaye – new silly activities every time or else they simply ignore me and cling to their mother’s. Zdena is fairly sedate and does not want to appear silly or do anything that would promote stereotypes about Roma, including music. Mostly she simply sits with Shaye and plays with play-dough or Legos and tries to think of things to say. Shaye generally pays attention, is delighted to see Zdena, follows her around and doesn’t cling to me. She even sometimes repeats words after Zdena and appears to be starting to understand. She learned a few words in the first “lesson”, namely the numbers up to five and the word for “cat”. Shaye seems to somehow instinctually sense that this is important. She may fight me on putting on her coat or eating her vegetables, but she seems to sense that this is one area where she needs to cooperate. It’s the plain truth. We can’t afford Zdena really and, if Shaye were against the lessons, it is unlikely she would have many other opportunities to learn Romani or have much of value from her “roots”.

In any event, the day after Shaye’s first intense experience with her lifebook, she and Zdena worked with play dough, built a castle out of magnet tiles, painted pictures, danced to music. Zdena did not dance with any enthusiasm. She shies away from anything to do with music. I think I understand. It is one of those stereotypes and she appears to want to be far away from anything stereotypically Romani. For the time being, Shaye was patient with Zdena’s lack of zest and I was thankful for any break I could get.

At one point, Shaye started yelling in excitement and I heard Zdena’s voice asking something in Romani, repeating a certain word that sounded suspiciously like the English word, “Grouchiness.” Curious, I stopped what I was doing and asked her to repeat it and sure enough it sounded exactly like “grouch-i-ness” in every intonation. I could not have guessed that it was not spoken by a native English speaker. I asked what it meant and Zdena said that it just means “yelling” in Romani but not necessarily grouchy yelling. I was mystified. Is that coincidence or one of those strange Romani-English commonalities that crop up. Umbrella is the same word in Romani, even here in the east. It is simply the English word “umbrella.” And then there is “lollipop”, an English word that comes from Romani, originating with the words “loli” (red) and “pap” (apple).

Soon, I started making tortillas for lunch. Zdena had clearly never tasted a tortilla but she said she would try it. She and Shaye finally started looking at picture books and Shaye happily repeated some of the worlds after Zdena. Knowing the books well and some of the words, I can usually tell what page they are on. I gazed out the window at the misty noon, as gray as dusk would be back home. The sun, on the rare occasions when it is visible at this time of year, is only a few degrees above the horizon, even at noon.
This year as the light of the sun receded I felt a deeper and more sinister darkness creeping over the land. I rarely listen to or read the news any more but everything that seeps through to me has been bad and almost all of it has to do with race relations. Another riot. Another fight. Romani teens killed people in a pub with machetes. The neo-Nazis retaliated against Romani families with small children. The police stood by and said, “What do you expect? They’re Gypsies.” A human rights report says the schools are as racially segregated as ever, three years after the European court decision that was supposed to end all school segregation definitively. The government cracked down on poor families again, pulling aid program after aid program. And all over again…

When I go out on the streets these days I am often met with hostility and I am as white as people come. Still I am a foreigner. Recently, I was fired from my job at a preschool and the director did not want to say why. One of the reasons she eventually gave when pressed was that I “don’t speak Czech well enough.” This in spite of the fact that I was hired specifically to speak exclusively English to the children. And my spoken Czech is very nearly perfect, in any event. It was obviously an excuse and not even a well-thought-out one. Even the Vietnamese people who have a market in our town, move about like ghosts. They never meet people’s eyes, never speak unless it is absolutely necessary. They are silent, small, inconspicuous and simply work hard and keep to themselves. The Czechs always say the Vietnamese are their “ideal” minority, and yet they treat even the Vietnamese badly. Some people I know in town specifically avoid the Vietnamese store and will go further to patronize a Czech store. Others simply grumble at how bad things are getting when the Vietnamese can own a store “even in a town like Mnichovice.”

The hatred and distrust seemed to grow every day in the fall and the oppression of it on the land and people was palpable. I found myself and my children increasingly isolated until whole weeks now go by when we do not see a neighbor or any person from outside our family. We might as well be living in the wilderness, except that Shaye occasionally catches glimpses of other children on the street and cries that she wants to play with them.

When I heard Shaye repeating the occasional word of Romani after Zdena, my heart lifted a little. I have always wondered how Zdena sees the current turmoil and hostility in society but I have learned not to open that topic with Romani acquaintances, lest they close down all communication and disappear. It has happened before with Romani people I’ve had the discussion with. They mostly cannot handle direct discussion of the problems they face in society. So, I step around it carefully and Zdena skirts it even more obviously than I, looking away from me any time we come close to the sensitive issues.

Even so, I wish could tell this woman my motivations. I wish I could hug her and tell her, “Zdena, you are doing a great thing in teaching this child. It isn’t just babysitting. It is small but it is also great. You are striking a blow against all this hatred and fear. It may not seem like much but it is a real stroke for openness, peace and justice. If Shaye can speak Romani or even vaguely understand some of it, she will be very close to being able to bridge the gap that neither of us can. This is a struggle and we’ve done something significant here today. In a small and quiet way we’ve added a pebble to the foundations of a fortress of hope.”

Suddenly, I heard Shaye explaining something loudly to Zdena. I looked over and she had her lifebook laid open across their knees, where they sat on the couch, dark heads bent together seriously. “There’s Mama and Papa,” Shaye said clearly. “They didn’t have a baby. Wanted baby. Baby wanted Mama… Look… Look, Shaye has happy birthday.” She flipped the pages with delight. The sorrow of the evening was held at bay, for the moment at least. I smiled. Yes, a pebble but what a pebble!

When Zdena left that day, she left Shaye with a bracelet of woven red threads with tiny red plastic flowers. It is a very Romani thing and she did not tell me about it. I simply found Shaye wearing it after she left. It was a sweet thing but much more than that. It was a signal of acceptance. I remembered how we had been told in one of the lectures on Romani culture I attended last year, that traditionally Romani babies are given a bracelet of red thread to wear on their left wrist, when they are given their name. It is an old ritual, one perhaps only some Roma still practice. The appearance of that bracelet hinted that Zdena too sees more in these lessons than just the money.

Another pebble perhaps.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Administrator
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 00:41:25

    Nice story! Glad your children are getting this opportunity to be exposed to the Romani language and culture.



  2. Brook
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 01:31:44

    Thanks so much for sharing, Arie! ♥ I love to read your posts!


  3. Ember
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 13:20:50

    Even though I know most of these stories from you telling me already, the way you write it touches me very deeply. This one actually brought tears to my eyes. Keep it up, I love it!


  4. Julie
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 16:07:21

    I love it, Arie. At the end, I realized the connection between The Red Thread book and the little red bracelet. I hope you can keep track of the bracelet — yet another impossible sounding challenge. I think we need a treasure box for the precious darlings.


  5. Joe
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 01:07:10

    Thanks for sharing your stories Arie. It’s a joy to get a window into the life of your family and your thoughtful take on your search for pebbles.


  6. ariefarnam
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 06:59:05

    I haven’t seen the bracelet in awhile. I’m hoping that I went through with my plan to put it away someplace. I think I might have but I also might not have. I remember trying on several occasions, but I couldn’t do it immediately. I had to let Shaye wear it and wear it the next time Zdena came.

    I guess it is interesting that the bracelet is made of red thread and there is also The Read Thread book and idea connected to adoption but I doubt there is any cultural connection. I vaguely remember that the red bracelet is supposed to keep the child safe from evil spirits. But they don’t wear it all the time, just for a short period, I think when the child is being named. We should have done it when we were thinking about which name to give Marik, but that was mostly at the children’s home and I don’t know if they would have gone for it. We were so nervous and afraid to but a foot wrong, given how difficult the people in Liberec were.


  7. Miki
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 18:56:35

    Arie, what a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing!


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