Every time I put on my summer robe, which is white cotton with a zipper up the front, I think of the charming Fatima. She was a Machvanka I once knew. The last time we talked was when I was living with my daughter in Seattle. Fatima called and suggested that I join her in Los Angeles. Her heart was wearing out, she said, and she was now, day and night, confined to bed, her big queen-sized bed. She would be so pleased if I came and kept her company. Boyo, her husband, and her sons would make our meals. They would shop for whatever we needed. We could just talk, tell stories, jokes, laugh, and, of course, rest.
Fine, I said. Sounds wonderful! I immediately drove to the store and bought the robe I am wearing now, as well as a pair of brightly printed pajama pants and slippers.
The next day, I was packing to get on the plane when Boyo called and told me not to bother. Fatima had gone to the hospital with breathing difficulties. Two days later, she was dead.
Fatima was the daughter-in-law of my beloved mentor, Lola. Fatima had married Lola’s oldest son. She had been promised to Boyo as a child; Bahto, Lola’s husband, made the arrangements. Charmed by little Fatima, he asked his cousin to save his daughter until his own son reached his seventeen and they could agree on brideprice. First sons are special in Roma belief. They are owed increased respect, comforts, and other advantages.
Bahto apparently knew what he was doing; the arrangement led to an awesomely good marriage that lasted more than half a century.
Initially, the marriage didn’t seem auspicious. New Machvaia daughters-in-law live with the groom’s parents long enough to learn the customs and habits of their new families from their mothers-in-law. However, shortly before the wedding, Lola had confessed to her husband that she was in love with Pepe, a much younger, quite handsome (blue silk suits and white ties, I am told), and already married Machvano. After this confession, Bahto kept beating Lola up and Lola was in no condition to assume the instructive motherly role. Indeed, Lola sobbed, Fatima said, all through her wedding. The new bride refused to remain in such a depressing and sorrowful situation and went home to her mother. Bahto lured her back with the promise of a brand new car.
Fatima told me that although she was fond of Boyo, she left him twice because she felt sorry for Lola. The issue was resolved when, before the first marital year was up, Bahto purchased the newlyweds a place to live that was several thousand miles distant from his and Lola’s melancholy Sacramento home.
Eventually – and I don’t know when -- Lola divorced Bahto.
But Bahto was particularly fond of his first daughter-in-law. To make sure she had whatever she might need, he slept on the porch outside her door whenever she was sick or caring for a newborn infant. He first bought the couple a roomy house in the South, and, many years later, a cottage (not as small as it sounds – in Los Angeles “cottages” are houses with porches across the entire front).
The Machvaia arrived from Serbia around the turn of the last century and traveled, farm to farm, by horse and wagon. Since the 1920s, cars have taken the place of horses and, by the forties, the women who are the family breadwinners were working from storefronts, apartments, and houses. With the easy availability of the large number of clients in cities the money from fortune telling became easy come, easy go. As most of the men no longer had that much to do, they drank, went to Vegas to gamble, and focused on good times.
Boyo, however, didn’t drink himself to death like so many of the men in his tribe. Instead, while Fatima worked, he took his sons fishing and often spent his afternoons golfing. He learned to paint by faithfully following a televised art class. Art became his passion and he painted whatever struck his fancy. This eventually included his living room walls, which he decorated with giraffes, zebras, lions, and leopards. On my last visit to their house, the room was starkly white, all white rugs and furnishings. But in the more recent picture he sent me, one that he knew would amuse me, the room resembled a cheerily wild and exotic zoo.
I suspect the good influence of his wife Fatima was fundamental to Boyo’s choices. Fatima was from the Uwanovich clan, the daughter of Pero and Lenka. Fatima was a woman who made everyone she met feel glad, good, and easy. She was her mother’s favorite, her father-in-law’s favorite, Boyo’s favorite, and she was mine.
The Machvaia traditionally believed that the Dead One crosses over to the Other Side during the first year after death, a difficult and transitional period that finds Them visiting the dreams of their bloodline and friends. The recently Dead Ones being the main purveyors of good and bad fortune, any dreamers are well advised to take advantage of this golden opportunity and to request a measure of good luck.
But not being raised Roma, I forgot to do this. Instead, when I had the following dream, a dream in which Fatima is incredibly present and available, I worried about the family Fatima left behind. I wondered how they would manage without her.
Dreaming Fatima October 2009
Fatima is here,
even though I haven’t the least idea of
what she is wearing, or her age.
But I do feel her warmth and the
certainty of her presence.
I think she may be here because her family,
husband Boyo and two grown sons,
are short on funds and scrunched
into a single bedroom
Going to help, I find Fatima still in the
cottage one block off Wilshire Boulevard,
the one with the palm-reading room near
the front door and
Obligation is heedless of death and the
Fatima I know would do anything for me.
I try to help her as well.
Could these high-ceilinged rooms
But how? The first floor is full and
I must climb over women, an army of women
sleeping on the rug, some of whom greet me,
some of whom I know.
They say, “Fatima lets us sleep here.”
And I realize that the floor is open to all comers,
in keeping with Fatima’s generous nature, the ethic
of sharing, and the time the Roma sang,
and were together.
Awake, I find Fatima here, still here,
straight-talking, sparkling, glamorous.
So why does Fatima, this essence of Fatima,
feel more real, more near, more dear than
when she was alive?
After the dream, I called Boyo to tell him about Fatima and how she had visited me.
He said not to worry. He has sold the cottage. He and his sons are getting by.