Once Were Gypsies
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
Once, America had Gypsies. The women were known by the length and breadth of their giant flowered skirts, head scarves, and the palm silhouettes in their storefront windows. In 1966, when I began studying Roma, the palm signs had transposed into Psychic Readings and the women dressed more like hippies.
My applications for money to study Roma were all refused and I decided to sponsor my own fieldwork. I began in Seattle with Katy’s storefront on First Avenue. Despite her hostility and lack of welcome–I didn’t know she thought I was one of her husband’s girlfriends--I dropped by several times a week. After repeated and failed attempts at conversation, I met her mother who was visiting, a bossy and charming woman in her sixties who was named, she said, for the once famous Lola Montez. Without the courtesy of an introduction, Lola jumped up, grabbed her overloaded purse, and demanded that I drive her home immediately. After she had cooked and served our dinner, as well as saved the remainder for my two teen-aged children and called to tell them it was coming, Lola insisted on telling my fortune. The reading revealed we were two divorced women alone who needed each other. As Lola poured me another unrequested cup of coffee, she assured me we were bound to become the very best of friends. I didn’t believe her. But she knew.
Lola was a creature of surprises, the master of the unexpected, and she constantly made me laugh. She phoned me and my children several times a day to ask what we were doing. She occasionally phoned my three sisters and my brother as well. She insisted I drive her everywhere, shopping, to her doctors, dentist, to watch the sun set, and to all the Roma events. At the Roma picnics and parties, I was seated beside her, entirely unaware, until years later, that Lola’s son had insured my welcome by explaining I was Lola’s costly and essential nurse. When I realized Lola would quickly give me whatever I said that I liked, I quit expressing my admiration for any of her possessions. She was eager to see where and how I lived, and I drove her to my apartment. But when the elevator stopped on the sixth floor, my floor, she refused to get out, moaning,
---Ooo, it’s too high here.
Lola was Machvaia, a tribe in which the women were the bread winners, a tribe unknown in Serbia but considered the richest, luckiest, and the best in the States. The Kalderasha Roma (Gypsies call themselves Roma, not Gypsies) are far more numerous and America has some other kinds of Roma as well. But I was intrigued by the people from Machva, Serbia. The latter exchanged brides, made friends, danced, shared stories and rituals, had descendants, and eventually, here in America and after a generation of two, became the notable tribe Machvaia. (See page 6.)
Lola was never happier than when telling me about her childhood. She was the daughter of Stanya and John Milosh, a German Gypsy who died when she was young. After losing her husband, Stanya, Lola’s mother, turned down many offers of marriage. Instead of remarrying, she went to live with the prosperous and well-liked Zhurka, her uncle, and told fortunes with Zhurka’s wife. As Lola was the first in her family to be born in the States, her mother called her their “American child.” Godparents are considered the spiritual heralds of a godchild’s future, and Lola said that her godparent’s baptismal gift—a short red American dress, a red coat, a matching hat with fur, with white shoes and socks—was not Roma whatsoever.
Upon arriving in America, the people traveled by horse and wagon, and by foot. The wagon had a small curve on the top, Lola said, and she drew a sketch for me. They ate whatever they could find growing along the road and the women begged at whatever houses appeared prosperous. When they could, the men traded and sold horses; more often, they worked in the fields for food or a bit of money. Lola happily remembered that nearly everything was free; only cooking oil and telephone calls cost money. Other than Zhurka, Lola’s uncle, no one had much in savings. But now, as Lola bitterly complained:
---Money is driving everybody crazy.
While her father was still alive and the family was still traveling, Lola was the youngest, the prettiest, and the one who was sent to the door to ask for help. The Americans, she assured me, were usually good and generous. But not always. Some farmers were afraid of Gypsies. Some were angry because a thieving Roma tribe had traveled the road before. That was one reason for the costly wires and phone calls. Constant travel made it difficult, but the Machvano (man) of the family would try to call his relatives and friends to discuss which areas in America to avoid and which might hold untapped promise.
Whenever they met other people from Machva (a province in Serbia) on the road, the people stopped, unhitched their horses, arranged their tents in a circle (so everyone could see inside; an open door was Roma policy), and the people partied. Stories were told; more were invented. The music was Roma, Serbian, Yiddish, and American songs with whatever guitars and drums were available, as well as, occasionally, a saxophone. Everyone who could took turns dancing, and the young girls danced the most. A Saint day or another kind of holiday (upon their arrival, the Machvaia had immediately adopted every major American holiday except Halloween and July Fourth), or a wedding might be celebrated. The party ended when the food and the liquor ran out, or the local farmers tired of the noise.
Yesho Merino was the first to buy a car. Most of the elders were terrified by the roar of the engine, the speed, and wouldn’t go near it. They said it was bad luck, and, in a way, they were right. It was the end of horses which was the men’s world, the men’s source of pride, and the main share of a man’s work.
When she was sixteen, Lola married Bahto who was a smart Rom and his father’s favorite. Bahto had already persuaded his father to let him have a car. Traveling that formerly took months now required less than a day. Bahto loved to drive and cars became his business. Eventually, and for many years, Bahto owned a successful used automobile agency in Sacramento.
I was curious about how the Machvaia managed all-seasons travel. Lola explained that their touring cars had wide running boards where they could lash their folded tents, their tent poles, the rack for dishes, an ax, shovel, ropes, and oil. Bedding and pillows went inside, and the rugs in the trunk to cushion the sacred boxed Saint candles. In cold weather, the children stayed warm inside the wagon beneath the pile of down comforters. I asked Lola what it was like to live in a tent, and her arm swept around the living room of her apartment which was furnished, much like my mother’s, with traditional Duncan Phyfe style furniture. She assured me it was just the same, but outdoors.
I’m sure it seemed so to Lola. She had earlier explained that they also carried a card table, two folding chairs, and four folding cots when traveling. I suspect she didn’t find her current circumstance much of an improvement. Indeed, all this talk of traveling made Lola somewhat nostalgic.
--- Sometimes, for the hell of it, I just want to go back to where we camped.
A place with trees. All green and fresh and free.
---Then I remember my bathroom, the hot and cold running water.
I wondered what life had been like when the people were traveling and, some years later, Bahbé, Lola’s sister-in-law, told me about her wedding. She said in those days the fathers made all the arrangements. Gitsa sent a telegram from Chicago saying he wanted to get his son Miller married.
My father said to Gitsa, ‘Come. Come. I don’t promise you nothing. But if you want to come, come visit us.’ So they took the train . . . it was maybe 5-6 days on the train, Chicago to Spokane.
I was fifteen, Miller was sixteen and just a young boy.
So they made the arrangements. Father said there aren’t many people (Roma) in
Spokane so we will meet in Portland, Oregon. And he got a great big field from a farmer.
And they brought their tents, sixty tents. Everybody came. Adams, Uwanovich, Pavlovich
(Machvaia), as well as Rishtershti, Ginershti and others (Kalderasha). It was when the new cars, touring cars, just came out, big cars with a canvas top. We were all traveling.
The best part was when they got ten pigs and roasted them on spits.
Just before the wedding my mother-in-law and father-in-law had to put a red
handkerchief around a bottle of whiskey and the bride price money, $5,000, on the
table. I was my father’s favorite and he said that he wanted another $1,000 on top of
that—so if my in-laws don’t treat me good and he has to go looking for me, he has that money and can spend it fast.
Now, the wedding was on and what they do, they take all your clothes and put a
white slip underneath and you go to bed. That petticoat has to show blood on it the next
day to show that you are a virgin. [This tradition had ceased when I knew them.] Then
they make a flag out of it so everyone can see.
A bride has a lot of dresses. I started my wedding in a red dress, changed to
the white one the next day, and I ended with a red dress and red diklo (scarf). Three people had to sew on it, which they did. On the last day the bride gets the scarf and three young people have to fix your hair in braids and gold coins. That means you are married.
Mine was a big wedding. We stayed there about fifteen days. We partied, there was music, and all the men came from their tents to give us money for good wishes.
Then my father went back to Spokane. I went to San Francisco to live with my new family.
Then Bahbé added,
---You know what it’s like to be a bori [daughter-in-law], Carol? It’s awful. Each morning I had to bring water, bring wood, build a fire, and cook the coffee early. I had to
grind it, make it powder with a perfect foam on top. Oh, my God, it was hard.
The mothers-in-law were mean. When I didn’t do it right, mine threw the coffee in my face and burned me.
I had to cook, clean, take care of the children, serve everyone, and dance if there
was company. No matter how tired I was, I couldn’t go to bed until everyone else was in
bed. That’s a daughter-in-law’s life. I was a slave; I couldn’t say nothing: I wasn’t allowed to do nothing. No rest, no fun, just work.
By the mid ‘60s, when I began my fieldwork, the people were no longer nomadic. They lived in houses and apartments and had established fortune-telling territories. Appointments for readings were usually made by phone and a popular reader might have a dozen or more clients a day. The people advertised on the radio, in the newspaper, and purchased ads on the municipal buses. The Machvaia were making money. If they didn’t, they moved to another area.
During my nine years with Lola in Seattle, she moved four times. She would call her son whose Uwanovich wife, Dolly, was called a money-maker and tell him she needed a new location. Lola’s last move was to an apartment on Eastlake, a major street just two blocks from my basement studio. There, throughout a twelve-month year, she hung her rose flower Christmas tree lights over one expansive window. When someone called for a reading, she would cheerily tell them:
---I’m easy to find. I’m the place with the lights.
Technically, I was an Outsider and universally unwelcome. But Lola became so quickly dear to me that I didn’t appreciate the restrictions regarding Outsiders (Gadzé). Romania (Roma law) forbade associating with Americans, other than for matters of business. Roma believed they were of an entirely different heritage and kind from Outsiders, cleaner (because of washing and separating customs), more moral (because of Romania laws), more spiritual (God loved them best), and smarter (this they hoped). Any intimacy with Americans was forbidden.
But that wasn’t Lola. As she repeatedly told me,
---Americans and Roma; there’s no difference.
I was trying to find out everything I could about her people and Lola was a terrible informant. She refused to answer questions. She repeatedly explained that she was not old fashioned and could think for herself. As I didn’t fully understand the seriousness of the people’s separation by reason of kind, I couldn’t appreciate what she meant.
Lola knew I loved her. But I didn’t understand her. A woman who thought for herself was a one-woman Roma revolution and the harbinger of significant events to come. I had to travel, ask questions, meet many more of the people to solve the mystery of Lola.
Seattle had only a few Machvaia families and these were most often temporary; California had many thousands. I took five summer trips to California, two each with both Lola and Katy, and one with my dear friend Stevo. In 1984, I finally moved there, as did all the Seattle Machvaia. Not until I lived in San Francisco and was in close contact with several of the many lineages and people did I learn the significant shame implied in ignoring Romania (law) and doing your own thing. Some of the women told me in private that Lola was crazy. Some complained that she didn’t dress right. Others had heard the gossip that she drank and fraternized with Americans. A few admitted they were fond of Lola and refused to believe in her criminal shames.
But Bahbé, Bahto’s sister who in her maturity became Big Bobé of San Francisco—the only Machvanka (Machvaia woman) in America to run a city—assured me that Lola’s odd behavior began when she went crazy for love. Machvaia believe that excessive feelings of any kind are like an evil curse. At the same time, the people follow their feelings to find the direction of their luck, a central and over-riding spiritual concept that suggests the rule of Hindu karma. A fierce anger, any kind of passion like going crazy for love, was taboo and unlucky.
Lola was in her late thirties and the mother of seven children when she fell in love with a much younger and already married man. Pepé was tall, handsome, charming, and a bit clever. He wore, I am told, navy blue silk suits and white ties. Lola gave him money and met him on the sly. But when his family found out about the affair, they warned Pepe’ that his family’s good fortune was threatened, and Pepe’ dropped her.
A heartbroken Lola returned to Sacramento and told Bahto. Bahto was furious. He beat Lola up whenever he came home. The fact that he was sleeping with whoever he pleased, often his American customers, apparently had nothing to do with the expectations he had for his Machvanka wife.
In the evening, Lola began going to a nearby tavern. She often stayed overnight at the motel across from her ofisa (storefront office and home), waving at her children from the window. Eventually, when all her children had married, she left Bahto.
My beloved friend Fatima remembered the sad day she got married to Boyo, Lola’s oldest son. She said the wedding music and the wedding were ruined by the sound of Lola crying in a corner. Indeed, Fatima left Boyo twice because she couldn’t stand the sound of Lola crying. The third time, Bahto bought her and Boyo a house in the South that was many states and miles away from the California sorrow.
Despite the codified rule of absolute difference, Roma have probably always adopted foreign customs that they liked. In Serbia, for example, the people picked up six or so Saint Day rituals, but with a somewhat different system of beliefs. In America, and long before I knew any Machvaia, movie stars had made a critical impression. Although Bahto understood the value of education and insisted that his children go to school, as adults they admitted they had often skipped school and spent their lunch money on a movie.
In Seattle, the first Machvanka that I visited, Katy, was Lola’s daughter. Katy’s baptized name was Bahbé (after her famous aunt), her nickname was Tuli (Fats because she was so skinny), and her fortune-telling name was Barbara. But she insisted I use the name Katy in my articles and books as a tribute to Katharine Hepburn, whom she cherished.
One of Tuli’s sisters looked a lot like Linda Darnell; she assured me that everybody said so. Stevo (Todoro) who was a Lee, liked to think he looked and acted like Clark Gable. Identifying as someone else, an unlike being, was the beginning, I would imagine, of cultural assimilation. Lola believed she resembled Bette Davis and demanded that I see it. When the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was released, she called me and her youngest son, Millay, over to see “something important.” At the time, Lola was living in one of his houses, and she came smiling down the stairs from the second floor in a very short dress, anklets, her hair piled to one side of her head. She asked Millay who she was; he admitted that he didn’t know and ran quickly out the front door. Viewing so much of his mother’s bare legs was forbidden by Romania.
The rule of Romania protects all Roma women from rape. In the decades I was with the Machvaia, I never met anyone who had been raped. Indeed, every Machvanka had total control of her private parts, just the sight of which could make a Rom (man) marimé (outcast). Lola said that when they were still camping, one of her younger sisters stopped a big fight. She ran up a hill and began throwing her clothes off. The men and boys ran away when she screamed:
---All you guys who are against us, you can eat this.
When I got to California, I learned that nearly all Machvaia love to dance. Indeed, music and dancing were critical matters for the people, some of which lived to sing and dance. A beautiful singer or dancer could even improve the merit status and the reputation of an entire lineage
A few years after I began going to as many California events as I could, Elvis Presley became the significant star in the Machvaia universe. The people found his artistry, his movements, better than ideal. Every party had at least an hour, a painful hour to me who wasn’t into Elvis, of Elvis imitators singing. Not all of them were young and not all of them could sing. I am told that some of the people so adored him that they added his picture to their Saint shrines and prayed to him on Sunday. Some sneaked their tots into Elvis movies to see him, hoping that his musical skills might be adopted. When he died, Katy told me that an unmarried Machvanka in Oakland who had worshiped him committed suicide, hoping to join him.
The night before I left Seattle for California, Lola generously rectified her drawbacks as my informant. She called me to come over and to bring something to write on. She then dictated all my Machvaia kinship charts, which included forebears. This process required five exhausting hours of her remembering, repeating, and me writing. Lola had apparently realized that I would need to know about the lineages and families when I got to California. Indeed, I kept copies of the charts in my purse and would pretend to go to the bathroom where I could study them in the privacy of a cubicle. Without them I would never have known who I was talking to or about.
How did the people from Serbia become a tribe called The Machvaia in America? This is what Lola and a few other elderly Machvaia told me.
The tribe Machvaia began with Lola’s uncle, the Bahro (Big Man) Zhurka Adams. He was the first to come to America and the founder of the Machvaia. What was Zhurka like? He was dark complected and a beloved father to his people. Although he wasn’t much for singing and dancing, he was a kind man, even-tempered, and he helped fellow Roma whenever he could.
After arriving in America (late 1880s), Zhurka went back to Serbia and told his friends and relatives that America was full of gold and good for living. He sold his real estate properties, and returned with his wife, his son, and his father, Marenko. Zhurka’s family name was Adamovich, the most common name in Serbia..In America, he and his lineage are known as the Adams. They are the most important and the luckiest of all the Machvaia lineages.
The next to arrive (early1900s?) was Zhurka’s cousin, Atarhino. In Serbia, Atarhino’s mother, Saycha, a beautiful woman and smart, owned a cafana. She sent her son to America to avoid his conscription into the army and because he had married against her wishes and well below his station. Atarhino’s family name was Pavlovich. In America, a helpful customs agent suggested his own last name, Williams, assuring them Williams was easier to spell.
Duda, Atarhino’s wife, had three brothers, dZivko, Yotsa Pete, and Tukano; all three followed her to America. Tukano was known as a bit of a clown who cracked jokes with a serious face. Their Serbian lineage name of Adamovich is also known as Adams in America, like Zhurka’s, but with less distinction.
Zhurka gave his sister Maria in marriage to a Rom named Elia who was possibly a Romnichal (English Romani). The surname for their descendants is Lee, taken from Elia. The Lee lineage is known for hearty appetites;“they see it and they have to eat it.”
Two brothers, Three-fingered dZivko (not Duda’s brother) and Te’te Adams, next arrived from Serbia, soon followed by their cousins, Dushano John and his brother Aratso Adams. They came with their Serbian wives, one of whom, dZivko’s, lived to be 104. When we met, she was called Old Loli. Age is like a powerful spiritual blessing and her estimable presence was much desired at public events.
Atarhino’s nephew Rozharko arrived with his children and a Turkish Muslim Romni wife, Nata, who was white-skinned and tall. Rozharko was a hot-tempered, hot-blooded Rom who, when they were camping, once tried to sneak into the tent of a woman who wasn’t his wife. Atarhino had him tied to a tree, shamed, and banished from California. Rozharko was a Tedorovich in Serbia and his descendants are still called Tedorovich.
Uwanovich refers to several lineages, one of which has more of a history in New York and is sometimes called Raikershti for Raiko, the founder. Two of Raiko’s sons married Zhurka’s nieces and their California-based descendants became known for their success at fortunes. Madame Butterfly was the most notorious; she is named for the enormous circular skirts she fluttered and held high while dancing.
Several Kalderash individuals and small families have since married into the Machvaia–and become Machvaia. Most notable are the Merinos, a carnival family who had traveled the world. Yesho Merino married his three sons to Zhurka’s three red-headed granddaughters. When I met them in the seventies, the women were quite elderly, but warmly welcoming, and their hair was gray.
My great and good fortune was to join the Machvaia during their heyday. In the Sixties hippie days of peace and love, Americans were fascinated by the folksy charm of a Gypsy reading. This meant the Machvaia made money and could afford more and more parties and rituals. Being a host was a critical way to please the ancestors; being a guest was a morally worthy activity. For major events, the Machvaia usually flew to Sacramento or Los Angeles, their ceremonial centers. The people were celebrating on a lavish scale and, as my chief interest was belief and ritual, I went to as many social events as I could.
Most families observed at least two of the six elaborate Saint days, each of which involved several weeks of preparation and rituals. The colorful and glad Patradji (Easter) was the beginning of the Machvaia year, with eggs, fasting, prayers and promises to the Saints.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year were celebrated, as well as the Fourth of July, which had recently been adopted as an elaborate picnic on the family grave. Birthday parties for one’s children were a new reason to celebrate. Three-day weddings involved live bands, a variety of drinks, and tables of food. The men all arrived in tuxedos; girls and women of means wore formal designer gowns. The dancing was the best, the beat an insistent and welcome blessing, the physical fun, the growing reservoir of good wishes, the incessant pull of the music. In those unforgettable moments, we who danced became a pulsing and magical blend of one.
Pomani, the celebrations for the newly Dead Ones, were the most elaborate and consequential of the rituals. Piles of gifts for the Dead One were stacked on one side of the room and every fruit—even the unseasonal had been imported—was piled on the table. Everyone Machvaia was obliged to attend the celebration and they had to eat. But first, all the Roma who had ever lived in this world through all the centuries were invited. A formal and solemn invitation addressed the “Sun, Moon, Roma.” This was serious stuff, as The Dead Ones were the monitors of all good and bad luck. According to belief, the people’s blood lines were their destiny; how the ancestors of each lineage had lived, the good and evil that they did, was expected to become each person’s good/bad fortune and determine, moment to moment, the quality of their days. The Dead also punished all shames and errors regarding Romania (laws). Nothing was more powerful or important than The Dead Ones.
I often lived with Katy in Oakland for a week or two at a time. Whenever I did, we were usually getting ready for another event and discussing the last one attended.
But as American ways became increasingly familiar, the rule of Romania was threatened. Several presentiments of assimilating change have already been mentioned: the passion to emulate Hollywood movie stars, the telephone that connected the people in ways they had never imagined. And then there were the children.
When the people traveled by horse and wagon, their children, the people said, were happy and free. They played outside, the older caring for the younger. When they stopped traveling, many Machvaia didn’t want their children to go to school and become like the Gadze, the Outsider/Americans. To avoid being arrested by the local truant officer, these children hid inside their houses, curtains drawn, and watched television. Entire days of English fostered the loss of the language Romanes, a significant improvement in the child’s English, as well as introducing them to radical ideas about individualism and independence that were not Romania whatsoever.
Lola couldn’t read or write, nor could Bahto. He was known to be excellent at sales, but he had to hire a succession of American bookkeepers to pay his taxes and take care of his finances. Eventually, he hired one who stole all his money and he lost his business.
Illiteracy was also a danger to others. Dushano was fair, blonde, and not too smart. But his second wife, Kahta, was a whiz at fortunes. She banked quite a bit without telling him. That’s why, when questioned, he assured the Welfare agent that he didn’t have any money and, as proof of poverty, handed him his bank book. The IRS was notified, Dushano was jailed and fined, and all the California Gypsies were investigated for tax fraud.
Being illiterate is a special hazard for runaways, of course. But the Machvaia have always had a small number of runaways, illiterate or not. Anastasia (Bahbé’s daughter) reads English and would have left her marriage years earlier. But her mother was in jail for trying to bribe the Los Angeles police and there was no home to run to. After a few years, her mother (now called Big Bobe’) returned to San Francisco during the hippie Sixties-Seventies, and Anastasia joined her.
A few years after I arrived in California, nearly all the teenagers began running away. They left with a friend or a lover to avoid, they said, the pain of Romania restrictions. They usually disappeared overnight or for just a few days and returned when they found there were also rules in America. With so many escapees, there was no way to punish or evict them. The act of running away lost much of its stigma.
By the nineties, the runaways had stopped. The people had learned that there was little possibility of making it on their own in America. Only five percent or so had managed to stay away and on their own, to earn a living, and to satisfy their emotional needs.
In the fifties, Lola’s daughter Katy, at sixteen, was one of the first to try, along with a sister and two cousins. She got a job waitressing at a roller-skating diner and was her group’s economic support. After several months, she got sick, and her sister, Boba, wired their family for help. Upon their return, they were punished according to Romania and given in marriage to the first family to ask for them. Katy was wed to a family of Roma agricultural workers; she returned within the week in an ill and sunburned condition. She was then given to Tsetsi’s Kalderasha family, had six children, and remained in Seattle for nearly twenty years. When her husband became what she called a playboy, she divorced him, returned to California, and married a Machvano
The telephones that made fortune telling appointments offered multiple bonuses. Families separated by miles and days of travel found they were no longer isolated. Calls made human connections. New and unhappy brides discovered that if they could get command of the phone, they could call and complain about their married life and their parents who would send them the air fare to come home.
Becoming a Machvaia daughter-in-law has never been for the faint of heart. Stevo told me that his mother was the only bori (daughter-in-law) in her family of marriage and so overworked that she died in her thirties. Big George Adams (Zhurka’s grandson and the people’s second Baro (Big Man) is reputed to have held her tenderly at the end. An ideal bori example, she had been cooking, cleaning, and caring for six grown and unmarried Lee men, as well as raising her child Stevo.
But Lola’s mother-in-law was a kind woman, a caring mother to her daughter-in-law and Lola’s memories of her were tender. She had tears in her eyes, however, when she told me about the greatest tragedy of her life. Big George had wanted Dinah, one of Lola’s older daughters, for his son, and Dinah, against Lola’s wishes, had married into that family. George, being a Baro (he was Zhurka’s grandson) had innumerable mistresses, but he was legally married to a Kalderash, a Stevens, that Lola didn’t know or trust. As a young bride Dinah got a cold, then pneumonia, and died; Lola was convinced that the family hadn’t taken Dinah to the doctor in time. She cursed them. Lola went to Los Angeles where they lived and cursed both Big George and his Stevens wife.
---I said for them to die, and they did (in a few years).
Curses, strongly thought, do work, of course. After that, to avoid the bad luck, Lola never went back to Los Angeles.
By the eighties, girls didn’t always wait for their fathers to arrange their marriages. Some only married when they could be assured of a home and ofisa (office,) of their own and limited live together time with their mother-in-law. Once, marriages seemed to be forever. But now, people married again and again as they tried to figure out the direction of their luck. They married whomever they pleased, and even other tribes. When the best married the worst, the castelike nature of the Machvaia system of merit and inherited luck became chaotic.
Once, the people knew they were the best morally, spiritually, and in every way. When the people were horse and wagon traveling, other Machvaia were heard about and occasionally discussed, but seldom personally encountered. Shames and rumors of shames could only be suspected. But when households were connected by phone, the news spread like wildfire, becoming gossip, becoming legend, and, at times, confirmed and sanctioned.
Before, only the elders knew the best roads to travel and the people who mattered. The old people knew the laws Romania better than anyone; they monitored obedience and warned the misbegotten. But the telephone was followed by computers and cell phones; the young proved expert at everything tech and the old lost their means of control. The intrepid and erratic young, via email, Facebook, cell phones, found a world of joy in blabbing all their family secrets. They reveled in the shames, a histrionic soap opera of shames, the runaways, the bad choices, the unfaithful wives and husbands, disobedient children, the curses, the lies, the unshared health issues. All belief in the excellence and ideal perfection of extended Machvaia families, and particularly those who sat on krisa (courts), was lost. It became apparent that no lineage was good enough, exemplary enough, to sit in judgment of another. Without krisa, there was no way to heal disputes or to resolve differences. After a century of believing they were the most beautiful, the most perfect and the best, the people realized that they were no better than their needy American clients.
By the late eighties, other Roma were copying the Machvaia method of making money and fortune telling territories were becoming hard to find. The cost of living in America increased. When the rent for my studio apartment in San Francisco doubled, I moved in with Katy in Oakland. By the nineties, the people complained that they could no longer afford to take three days off to gamble (another way to have fun) or three days off to party—and nearly all the major events were three days except for the longer death memorials. My favorite of Lola’s granddaughters, Little Sonia, switched from telling fortunes to baking and decorating cakes, one elaborate creation at a time. Only those few in LA who had had the wisdom to invest in stocks and real estate were still able to celebrate continually and in style. The people complained that they were going American, and so they were.
In 1997, I was living with my daughter in Seattle when I heard about a Halloween party in northern California. The celebration was to be given by some mixed Canadian/Machvaia couples. Before, no Machvaia had ever celebrated Halloween. Before this, the people had been deathly afraid of offending the all-powerful Dead Ones.
I flew south, rented a room, went to the Halloween party in the auditorium, and took dozens of pictures. I knew it was the end of my fieldwork, the end of my tribal connection, and that what I had written was now history. The people who came were mostly under forty. They had dressed as royalty, police, pilgrims, pashas and dancing girls, bunnies, pirates, chefs, Frankenstein, angels, nuns and Fathers, Vikings, Indigenous people, goddesses, rock groups, clowns, witches, the King and Queen of Hearts, hippies, elves, toreadors, guerrillas, and ghosts. Dolly’s son, George Williams, was a funny ghost with three dangly heads.
I have a shot of a young and quite pretty woman who had just gone to the expense of opening a fortune telling ofisa in Fremont. Finding another Machvanka was already there, she had to leave. She wore white lace, a veil, and an armload of flowers to the Halloween party. The sign across her chest read ‘The Late Miss Fremont.’ Her outfit reminded me of the time, several decades earlier, that Katy’s children had tried their best to get rid of me by scaring me with what scared them—ghost stories.
My beloved Lola died at age 75 in the year 1975 and, strangely enough, on Halloween. She died when most of her family was in California where Rosie, her eldest daughter, was seriously ill with cancer, (In those days, whenever anyone was sick, nearly everybody came.) I joined Lola’s family in Sacramento. Traditionally, the Dead One was never left alone before the burial. But the previous year some of the Sacramento funeral parlors ruled that no one could remain in the chapel overnight. The day of the burial, the wait with Lola was followed by a quick trip to a Greek Orthodox Church, an overload of incense, and a short sermon. Then to the cemetery. My memory thereafter is a grieving blur. Although music was forbidden, I do remember Lola’s youngest daughter singing softly by her mother’s grave. Dear Zoni said she had to.
The pomana (death celebration) followed. Once it had been three months, six months, nine months, and one year—but by then, several pomani had been dropped.
How I missed her. In the mid-seventies, when I moved to California, I found her nine children had married into nearly every Machvaia lineage. They provided me an access to the community I might never otherwise have had. Somewhat free thinkers like their mother, they invited me in and treated me like family. Boba, one of Lola’s warm-hearted daughters said,
----Mother loved you; so I will love you too.
After death, the Dead One begins to travel to The Other Side. During that year, Lola’s name couldn’t be spoken; to say it might call her back from the challenge of her difficult journey. But I wanted others to know about think-for-herself Lola. I couldn’t let someone so astonishingly rare and amazing vanish. When Lola died, I began to write, or rather to teach myself to write. I wrote for hours, and then for days. It became a habit; each morning, I would spend five or more hours writing. Some of my friends made fun of me for writing without being published. But I had a mission and, in 2009, at the age of 82, Lola’s Luck, a memoir about my life among the Machvaia was published. In 2011, when I was 84, Gemma Media published The Church of Cheese; Gypsy Ritual in the American Heyday.
Year 2023: Those who were once Machvaia tell me that the Kalderasha no longer call them Roma. They say they are American.
They, on the other hand, call the Kalderasha who have almost all joined a Gypsy Christian movement, The Born Agains.
The Gypsies In Their Heyday