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As to Life, Loves, Luck, and Lola

When I look back over my long, long life, I feel incredibly lucky. It is my very good luck, for example, to live to be old, truly old, 96, and to feel good. I enjoy eating, drinking, being with friends, and I relish being alive. To move around my condo, I do require the use of a walker. But that seems a minimal restraint.

It is also my good luck to have become a writer. I love playing with ideas and enjoy being challenged by the choice of words upon a page. I write to find out what I think. I write to be in sync with what I might be feeling.

I have always adored books and words and reading. When I was a toddler, my mother read to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses. When I was six or seven, she gave me the 15 cents I asked for to buy a magazine at the corner newsstand. That memorable Playmate purchase fostered a passion for books. Reading released me from the boring confinement of our cramped hotel apartment and flew me to a land of imagination, mystery, and charm.

It is also my good luck to begin my life in a Spokane hotel where my father was the manager. For several years, and before my sisters were born, I was the only child in the hotel. Whenever I crossed the lobby, I could feel dozens of eyes watching. It was my good luck to sense their interest and approval. I think that feeling of connection created my unfailing respect and warmth toward the entire human race. My mother dressed me like Shirley Temple, who was a popular movie star during the Great Depression. At my father’s request, and like Shirley, I gladly sang and danced for our guests.

My best luck, however, was my mother Myrtle. When she was learning to talk, my baby daughter renamed my mother Mimi, and it stuck. Mimi was a tomboy farm girl come to the city. Mimi was fierce, funny, a dancing flapper, and a force of nature. She made me believe I could do anything that I might ever want to do. She made me feel the adult world was excitedly awaiting my arrival.

I have never been able to imagine why so many in America long for a house in the suburbs. I always found a house with a yard lonely and confining. I liked the way the hotel was so full of people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t, and some that I adored. I took dancing from Carmelita Dorrity. I took elocution from an aging actress and learned an appealing way to recite pieces like, ‘’There are Fairies at the Bottom of my Garden.” At six, I started piano with the French Canadienne Laura B. Luke and continued until fifteen when I began to work as a Ridpath Hotel desk clerk. Laura introduced me to the singer Mabel Henry Young and, at age twelve, I planned to be an opera singer. But, by the time I was thirteen, I was aware I didn’t have the voice. These are the women who taught me that art was the most fulfilling of all possible pursuits and my good luck has been to follow their example. They are the reason I was stunned by Balanchine’s original Agon, by Myra Hess playing piano at Carnegie Hall, by Pajama Game, my first Broadway musical. What incomparable joy the pursuit of art has brought me! Art of every kind, including books, and, eventually, writing.

During the stretch of my considerable years, I can’t say that all my luck has always seemed entirely wonderful. When I was doing ethnographic fieldwork with Gypsies, for example, I met the gorgeous Stevo, the man who became the love of my life. My desire for Stevo proved a somewhat mixed blessing, however, as, for nearly a decade, I longed to be in his arms. But he was a Rom who was already married and, after an era of passionate meetings, we had to stop. According to the rules of his tribe, to get his nine children married, he needed to present the proper devoted father image, an obligation that left me bereft and nearly ill with longing.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, his handicap of so many children turned out to be my good luck. For if we had married, our union wouldn’t have lasted. Other than sex, we had nothing whatsoever in common. I do regard that passion as well worth the emotional investment, however. I consider my three, too brief but glorious, years with Stevo as my fabulous good luck.

The man that I had married many years before I met Stevo was another piece of luck. Roger and I met at the University of Idaho shortly after World War II had ended. Marriage was in the air; nearly everyone in my sorority was getting married. That we married hastily was my good luck because although I lost my ovaries to endometriosis disease, by the time I was in my late twenties I had two beautiful children, Leslie and Colin, who have been the joys of my life and who are truly the blessings of my old age.

I cared for Roger. But I didn’t understand him. He wouldn’t talk to me and I didn’t know why. I would ask him if he liked what I had cooked for our dinner and he always answered yes. I never discovered what he liked to eat. I never knew what he was thinking. I didn’t know if he was a Democrat or a Republican. My guess is that he was afraid of getting into an argument and possibly exposing some of our significant differences, although what those might be, I never knew.

But mostly I blamed his lack of intimacy on the war. Rog had been drafted at eighteen and some months before the war began. He was sent to fly missions without the requisite supplies, the bombs and ammunition which the US had just begun to manufacture. That first year, his job in the Pacific was to be a US Navy Air Corps flying “presence.” Although he wouldn’t talk about it, he probably should have.

But he must have talked at work. Roger was exceedingly successful at business and frequently promoted. He made more and more money as we moved from one city to another. When he worked in Manhattan, we lived in the New Jersey suburbs and took a train and a lovely old ferry into Manhattan. I would spend blissful Sundays at the Metropolitan Museum, or the Museum of Modern Art. Those delightful years were certainly my good luck. Evenings, we often went into the city for dinner at a French restaurant, and then to Broadway, or Off-Broadway, to dramas, a musical (during the golden days of musicals), or to Carnegie Hall. Born in the wild West, If I hadn’t married Roger, I likely would never have enjoyed several years of New York’s incomparable arts and entertainment. If we hadn’t married, I would never have met the renowned medical doctor Sylvia who showed me by her example that a woman could succeed at raising a family and enjoy a career that she loved and excelled at as well.

Then my good luck petered out as Rog’s business sent us West again, this time to Spokane, where I was born and had always longed, as a child, to escape. We traveled first-class and the flight was abundant with delicious food and the frequent attentions of the flight attendant. Yet the journey, New York to Spokane, seemed to me totally tragic; I cried all the way. But it led, of course, to other and more positive events.

We had nearly two years in a lovely house no more than a few blocks from my parents. My daughter got to bond with my mother, who taught her to cook, crochet, and garden. My sister Nancy was also visiting Spokane and we went together to the local Gonzaga University. We discussed world affairs and what was wrong with life in America. We planned to have careers and to find the kind of jobs that would make our lives, and the lives of others, somewhat better.

After Roger was promoted and we were moved to Seattle, I continued at the University of Washington, graduating with a BS in psychology. Although I had hoped a degree might help me understand my husband, it didn’t. Still in search of a passion, I took a class in Anthropology taught by the incomparable Melford Spiro. Anthropology combined exactly what I loved: people contact, the truth of science, and the art of writing. But marriage to Roger made it unlikely that I might stay in one place long enough to get a graduate degree. Any possibility of discussing the situation with my mysterious husband was, of course, out of the question.

When Colin said he didn’t like his new grade school, I arranged for him to go to Lakeside Academy. He loved Lakeside, a private school where he wore a jacket and was treated with respect. There they found he had a reading problem and started him on treatment. It was in Seattle that I decided to divorce Roger. That’s when AT&T sent us to Portland, Oregon.

But before I became a financially challenged divorcee, I tried to take care of my children’s needs. Colin had another year or two of training, and that continued. Leslie, an able ballerina, wanted to dance with the New York City Ballet. My children and I flew back to New York, where Leslie performed and was accepted in Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. But she found, at 16, that she didn’t feel entirely comfortable staying by herself in the city. The three of us returned to Portland and Leslie and Colin to private schools. I monitored classes at Reed and Portland State. But our family life became depressingly problematic. Evenings, Roger drank too much and got mean.

As my divorce was becoming final, I moved back to Seattle and the University of Washington. There, I spent a few weeks with my dear sister Joan, who was getting a graduate degree in art. Then I moved into The Wilsonian, a large and noisy apartment building just a few doors from the campus. My son Colin got the roomy bedroom: Leslie a closet with a window: I slept behind the sofa in the living room on a cot. Leslie chose to spend the school year with her father in his more attractive Portland circumstances. Colin’s high school buddies, Tony, Don, and Bob, the sons of UW professors, became our frequent after-school visitors. Together, they ardently protested the Vietnam War and the oncoming draft. A half century later, they are Colin’s oldest friends.

Within the first year of my graduate studies, it was my amazing good luck to meet Lola, an older Machvanka, who immediately claimed me as her driver. I can’t say at the time I appreciated Lola as my good luck. I desperately wanted to understand the Machvaia. But whenever I questioned Lola about her culture, she refused to answer. She would say “I can think for myself.” Or “I’m not old fashioned,” which made no sense to me whatsoever. Lola took me everywhere, to all the Roma, Machvaia and the others. I did learn that the Machvaia were the most admired, the most attractive, elite, and rich of all American Roma. Seattle never had more than five or six Machvaia families, however, hardly enough for a comprehensive study and none of them would answer my questions. They told me I was Lola’s property and therefore I should question her. It wasn’t until I had been with the Roma off and on for a number of years and spent some time in California, home base of the Machvaia, that I understood that Lola, although from the most prestigious family, was a rebel and a criminal. She had taken a Rom lover briefly, she was rumored to make friends with American Outsiders while drinking in American taverns, and, after years of enduring his savage beatings, Lola divorced her husband, all of which were criminal acts.

“We are two women alone,” my darling Lola said. “And we need each other.”

The evening before I moved to California, Lola told me to bring a pen and paper. Then she proceeded to remember and give me the names of all the living and dead Machvaia, eight clans and four to six generations. Lola was privy to more than sixty years of Machvaia history. Over the years, I carried those kinship charts into every large Machvaia gathering. Without them, I would never have known who I was talking to or who we were talking about.

In California, I found that Lola’s children had married into nearly every one of the eight Machvaia clans. Each of her ten adult children were invariably open and friendly, and some of them even offered me, an Outsider, a place to stay. As dear and sweet Boba, one of Lola’s daughters said, “I know Mother loves you. So I will love you too.”

Lola died in 1975. But even dead, she was my good luck.

Several years before I left for California, I had begun to hemorrhage and required an emergency hysterectomy, after which my brain went on hold. I couldn’t remember much of what I had read for my PhD and had to settle for the MA granted earlier in my studies. For three years I earned a living by teaching at the local community colleges. I found teaching great fun: teaching was my good luck. I liked to promote and share anthropology, a subject I adored. It was the beginning of the environmental movement and I managed to incorporate many of the significant interests and problems of the day into my lectures. I would have been happy being hired on a more permanent basis if I hadn’t wanted so passionately to understand what made Machvaia a tribe and the best of all the American Roma.

I never got a grant to do field work. At that time government grants seemed to go to students bound for the Pacific Island protectorates. Only one of my professors, Ed Harper, could see any reason to study Gypsies (more properly called Roma). And it was the Sixties, the days of peace and protest, and Ed dramatically quit his teaching job to leave for Canada. Without a committee head or any research grant money, I was required to sponsor myself.

It was my good luck that in the sixties and seventies, food and housing were cheap. I rented a studio apartment in San Francisco for only $60 a month and, part of the time, could even afford to eat out at the nearby O’Banions. I survived for a decade on part-time work and Unemployment benefits. Once I even worked on Alex and the Gypsy, a movie that featured the notable actors Jack Lemmon and Genevieve Bujold.

By the early eighties, my rent had more than doubled and it was increasingly difficult to find part-time jobs, particularly the kind that allowed me time to be with the people I was studying. By then, I was an established presence at Machvaia events and had become aware that the people were changing; “Going American,” as they called it. New brides no longer put up with abusive overwork or the husbands that their parents had selected. The krisa (courts) could no longer make and enforce their decisions. The Elders lost control of the culture. It was before the time of cell phones and the family secrets that had been remarkably easy to keep when everyone was immersed in traveling were now happily broadcast to all other Roma by disobedient teenagers. The young and their computers eventually destroyed the myth of family and tribal superiority.

I lost my job, my car, my apartment. and moved in with Katy. I went briefly back to spend a year in Seattle, ten months in Manhattan with Elicia, Leslie’s daughter, who had won a scholarship to the American School of Ballet, and then I moved back to California to stay in Mill Valley, a town without Roma. As my Social Security kicked in, I rented a one-bedroom apartment and continued to practice writing, six hours a day, an obsession that had begun when Lola died. I wanted the world to know about Lola. I hoped to learn to write well enough to get a book published. I had already published nine articles in scientific journals. But a commercially attractive book requires a different, more seductive, kind of writing.

Although I did attend Machvaia events that involved Lola’s family, Mill Valley was my vacation from Gypsies and my good luck. I lived there nearly a decade and never wanted to leave. Full of enduring redwood trees, a lovely surround of mountains, a seashore with seabirds, a café and Book Store, as well as delightful and aging Hippies, I have dreams even yet in which heaven is Mill Valley.

But then my daughter’s husband died. Her children had married and now lived in Manhattan. I drove back to Seattle to keep her company.

In roomy Leslie’s house I had a little suite. Leslie and I worked very hard, hard labor hard, for several years on her inheritance of run-down rental houses; then she sold them. As I wasn’t paying rent and gold was cheap, I joined Leslie in buying jewelry, mostly earrings, on QVC.

In Seattle, I had the welcome opportunity to visit with my peerless ninety-five-year-old mother. When she died and before her burial, Nancy and I spent several days sitting with our beloved Mimi, telling her stories, singing to her, which is the Buddhist and the Roma way.

Several years later, Joan died; she had let us know she didn’t want our memorial treatment. But she left her sisters, me, Nancy, Anne, all her property and money. I got a one-bedroom&den apartment in the lovely Wallingford area. My condo in The Ireland has been my very good luck. I have lived here eighteen years, longer than anywhere I have lived before, and as the years proceed and I no longer drive, with increasing help from family, friends, and others.

In 2009, my first book, Lola’s Luck: My life among the California Gypsies, was published. In 2010, with the help of research at the nearby UW Suzzallo Library, the same publisher, Gemma Media, published the more academic Church of Cheese; Gypsy Ritual in the American Heyday. I returned briefly to Mill Vallley to promote the first book at the Book Depot. The second book was celebrated at Third Place Books in Seattle, an event that was like a party with cake, tea, and coffee. I talked about some of the Machvaia people I had known while my brother projected their likenesses on a bookstore wall.

Nothing makes me happier than to have someone who has read Lola’s Luck tell me that they fell in love with Lola.

Some people consider their good luck a matter of clever planning. Some like to attribute it to hard work. Some blame their good fortune on their skill at making money. Others believe it is owing to the advantage of being American, white, and middle class. A few secretly believe their eloquence, attractiveness, or craftiness are responsible. Then there are the references to spiritual goodness and the godly.

I think good luck is an enduring and unsolvable mystery.

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