Beyond the Gypsies of Childhood, by Lynn Veach Sadler

Lynn Veach Sadler

Gypsies were the Resident Boogie Men where I grew up: in the
Friendship community, west of Goshen Swamp, southwest of Rooty Branch Church
and Summerlin’s Crossroads, south of Beautancus, southeast of Faison, east
of Bowdens, and northeast of Warsaw and Magnolia. When Mama caught me
punching licking holes in the fifty-pound bags of sugar stockpiled for
canning, she threatened to deliver me to them. Likewise for the time Cousin
Ann and I made cakes of most of twenty pounds of corn meal and poured the
rest down the pump.

I was generally contemptuous of the species, for no Gypsy I met
resembled the fortune tellers who came into Warsaw with the carnival every
Armistice Day. Not a single one lived up to the Nancy Drew mystery about
the doll real Gypsies had that gave off a strange glow. Ours appeared
mysteriously every summer and stirred tales of the “spells” they put on
folks to get their life savings or some favorite trinket. Once they carried
off Prince and his cart while their owner, Uncle George Giles, stood rooted
to his front stoop, stayed by the magic circle they’d drawn around him,
listening to his horse’s pitiful neighs.

I especially dreaded my parents’ shopping trips in Wilmington when I
was left alone to tend our grocery store. I couldn’t let anyone know I was
afraid of Gypsies. I had a reputation as a tomboy to uphold. Besides, it
wasn’t just the Gypsies, though they were the worst. The salesmen also
tested me. One of them asked me to cash a check he signed “U. R. Stuck” and
thought it “just dandy” when I refused.

I took precautions. We had television but no phone in the store, so
I’d make doubly sure my two Black compatriots, Big-Edward and Little-Joe,
knew they had a special invitation to watch Flash Gordon and the rest of
their favorite programs with me. (I’d also check that Daddy’s revolver was
in the back of the cash drawer and his shot gun beneath the main counter.)

The Gypsy threat had less to do with magic, I surmised, much later,
than with conniving. The trick was for them to drive up in two or more
cars, at least one of which had to be gassed. Daddy’s persistent summary?
“Damn rascals! While you’re outside at the pumps, they’re inside stealin’
you blind! At least they can’t slip up on you! Gypsy cars are always
piebald-body one color, fenders and boot another!”

I had an ally against the Gypsies, one of the umpteen cat
personalities of my childhood, but tabby-alley BabyChile was aristocratic
beyond that designation. My cat solely, he wouldn’t let anyone else near
him. His fractiousness presented a problem, since he claimed the top of the
large wooden ice box, beside the store’s front door, as his private domain
when I was working. He’d arch, hiss, and slash at anyone else. Once, when
a Gypsy conclave descended on us, one of the girls started to lift the ice
box lid. Instead of jumping off, BabyChile went for the Gypsy. The racket
brought me on the run. The victim knocked the cat to the ground and kicked
it. BabyChile, in turn, was making good progress against the offending foot
and leg. Both assailants were indulging in sounds neither cat- nor
human-like. I grabbed BabyChile and tried to soothe him, but he remained
bristled up a good hour after the last Gypsy retreated. Little-Joe and
Big-Edward warned me: “Dat Gypsy woman done cursed po’ BabyChile! You
better quick work some stop-’em magic!”

I asked their mother Sarah, who worked for my mother, for advice,
but she just rolled her eyes: “Miz Reba fire me she catch me puttin’ such
notions in your head.” I concluded that Sarah didn’t know any “stop-’em
magic” either. All I could do was keep a sharp watch over BabyChile.

Shortly, “he” showed up, as Aunt Viola, whispering, phrased it,
“p.g.” with hexed kittens fiercer than BabyChile herself. She had them
behind the ice box, and not even I could touch them. Before and after their
eyes opened, they’d attack anything/anyone not smelling exactly like
BabyChile. I was keen to pet them, so I tricked J. T. Langston into getting
them out for me. He wasn’t “book-learned.” In fact, Grannie had told me
often about the time she’d asked him what “b-i-s-c-u-i-t” spelled, and he’d
responded, “Good ole ice tea!” I told J. T. my arms were too short to get
to the kittens. He reached, yelled, and flailed the arm with two hissing,
scratching, clawing, mad demon-kittens climbing up it. He never forgave me,
and I was ashamed of taking advantage of him, but everybody else found the
episode funny.

I accepted that I was being punished, deservedly, when BabyChile,
right after the attack on J. T., moved her kittens to the pack house. But
the punishment got out of hand. Once a day, for five days, until she had
gone through the litter, BabyChile arrived at the store with a kitten in her
mouth. The only problem was that, when she deposited it at my feet, its
head was gone.

At first, Daddy maintained: “I guess a big barn rat found
BabyChile’s hiding place.” On the fifth day, though, when the last
decapitated kitten had been served up, he took the cat out and shot her.
“I’m really sorry, but your cat would have suffered too much from the loss
of her kittens.”

Mama added: “BabyChile must have gone crazy. Cats sometimes do
when they become mothers. Witness the Wampus Cat in the swamp.”

Big-Edward and Little-Joe were certain: “Your folk know. Dey jist
ain’t tellin’ you. Your daddy done drive a wooden stake through BabyChile’s
and them little kitties’ hearts to crusofry the Gypsy magic.”

Daddy had two beautifully matched, reddish brown horses named Ryder
and Dan. Given his tractors and mules, they didn’t have much to do but cut
a fine figure under the expert handling of Joe (“Old-as-Methuselah”) Dobson,
a tenant. Every Saturday, Joe hitched Ryder or Dan to his buggy and went
into town, letting the other horse come along behind, attached by a
smart-looking line to the buggy seat. When he had an audience, he’d pretend
the one pulling the buggy refused to budge. The rear horse would then nudge
about Joe’s back until the old man gave him a carrot or sugar. Then the
back horse would neigh to the lead horse, and they’d move on.

Some Gypsies tried to get Daddy to sell them his beloved horses, but
he figured they wanted to use them in tricks to get money out of people. He
refused the offer, as ever, in no uncertain terms. Three days later, Ryder
was found dead in his stall. Joe hauled him off with the tractor and buried
him in a back field. In spite of Grannie’s encouragements to the contrary,
Daddy refused to sell him to the glue factory. Everybody on the farm went
down for the burying, and all the men took off their hats; Joe and I cried.
A week later, Dan was dead. “Of grief, most likely,” everybody said but
Little-Joe and Big-Edward, who knew this was another “clear case of Gypsy

Aunt Viola and Uncle Rom gave me my first real “breed” dog, a
wire-haired terrier I named “Nubbie.” Whenever Gypsies came around, his
hair stood straight up, and he wouldn’t stop growling. One night Nubbie
howled and scratched at the back door until Daddy let him in. He jumped in
my arms and then leaped down and ran all through the house and back out the
back door to fall dead at the bottom of the steps. Even Daddy was alarmed
by my grief. “Now, now,” he tried to soothe as he patted me awkwardly on
the back. “It was poison, I expect. You should feel some comfort from
Nubbie’s determination to see you one last time, fighting death though he
was. He was a mighty brave little dog!” Since Daddy had made no bones
about his opinion that the terrier was “sissified-looking,” I remember
pausing in my grief long enough to ponder this admission. He investigated
but found no evidence that anyone in the community was killing off its dogs.
“Probably an accident. You know how curious that dog was. Always sniffing
into something. Probably got into some rat poison. His breed’s related to
rat terriers from what I hear. Might of got hold of some Paris Green left
under somebody’s barn shelter.” From then on, Little-Joe, Big-Edward, and I
held the Gypsies accountable for any dog who was poisoned off.

Clifton Jenkins was five years older than I was, and I had a crush
on him, or at least I acquired one when my older cousin, Jenny, came from
Wilmington for the summer and fell for him in a big way. Otherwise, I
didn’t, at that stage, have much use for boys. Jenny’s falling, however,
was big enough that she made up new words to the tune of “Country Gardens”
to express her feelings: “I love my Clifton, love him so dear. He is my
sweetheart for-e-ev-er.” I would pound out the accompaniment on the piano,
and Jenny would sing, cow-eyed, along. It helped me get through my music
practice, and I have to admit that I always wished I’d been the one to think
of changing those words.

Clifton was driving one of Daddy’s tractors on the day in question.
No one ever knew why, but he somehow ended up on the shoulders of the wrong
side of the road with the tractor upside down on top of him. Mama wouldn’t
let me go to the scene, but she couldn’t prevent my hearing what people kept
repeating when they recounted the story: “Why his head was squashed just
like a cucumber that has rotted on the vine!” I concluded that Clifton had
refused to reciprocate the affections of a Gypsy girl.

About six months later, coming home from a movie one Saturday night,
we reached the bridge over my favorite tadpoling branch. I was in the back
seat thinking about what would happen in the next episode of the movie
serial and pretending to record my thoughts on the window. Always alert
when I neared any water, I saw something out of the ordinary. “Wait, Daddy!
Stop! I see something. There. On the left. Look at the bridge!”

“What now! You’re imagining things as usual. It’s late, and we all
have to get up early for Sunday School. You see shadows. That’s all.

“Ralph, stop! I see something, too! Look! The railing of the
bridge! Something has gone through!”

Daddy had to acquiesce when Mama intervened. He stopped to check
but made us stay in the car.

“What is it?” Mama had rolled down her window.

Daddy came back wet and muddy. “We’ve got to go back to town and
get help. Nothing I can do.” He was whispering now to Mama as he started
to turn the car around.

“What is it, Mama? Tell me!”

“An accident. Two people are-in the water. We have to get help.
Now just be quiet and say a prayer for the afflicted.”

Daddy was thinking aloud: “Beats all I’ve ever seen. No more than
two feet of water ever in that branch. But the car was upside down. Still,
you’d think they could have-”

At Sunday School the next day, I slipped up behind the grown-ups
gathered around my father and heard his assessment: “I reckon the driver
lost control. He died of drowning. His companion’s neck was broken.”

Aunt Viola didn’t mince her verdict: “Two of the local tomcatters
got filthy drunk and lost their way. And their heads.”

Neither did Big-Edward and Little-Joe. “Another case of Gypsy
hexin’ an’ voo-me-doin’. Dem folk try to outsmart de Gypsies. Gypsies gots
dem instead.”

I think of all that unfairness (and lore) when I hear the scattered
stories of what happened to the Gypsies during the Holocaust-and is still
happening. I thought of it when, leaving St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt
Baskin-Robbins, my husband and I were targets of THE PLAGUE OF RUSSIA.
Mostly youths, they haunt main streets, live in train stations, and suddenly
surround their victims. More recently, in Palma de Mallorca, they gave out
roses and grabbed purses from the distracted.

Most recently (though I thought I had long since “moved on,” having
been a college president dealing with political correctness and such), my
hair dresser asked me if I knew about the “Travelers.” I was alarmed to
hear that “everybody knows about those criminals. They offer to do work for
you cheap, then slop it up and get away with your money. They prey on old
people living alone.” She remembers growing up with their kids, who were
always getting in trouble and dropping out of school. She recited a list of
surnames that were “a dead giveaway.”

I suppose the “Gypsies” of my childhood were a romanticized version
of descendants of the nomadic “Irish Travelers” or Pavees. Specializing in
seventeenth-century British literature (notably Milton) did not introduce me
to the branch of them driven forth from Ireland by Cromwell. Nor did I know
of their link with the tinsmith who was cursed for building the cross on
which Jesus died. I somehow had never connected “tinkers” with them and
have now begun to wonder if my grandfather, who traveled about selling
Watkins products, was a bona fide Gypsy. I was even relieved that his name
was not among those listed by my beautician.

Some sources deny that Irish Travelers are Gypsies, who are
considered Asian Indian, and relate them to pre-Celts (the Fairy Queen Mab)
and Celts far older than the likes of King Arthur. Whatever the case, some
of them, to my surprise, still wander our country; speak among themselves
versions of the ancient “Cant” or “Gammon”; and maintain clannish ways,
e.g., “looping” (a mating ritual), marrying young, valuing males. They do
have settlements, for example, Murphy Village in South Carolina, and they
continue to stand accused of being scam artists.

Gypsies are caught in a time warp of our and their own stereotyping.
They remain a principal Resident Boogie Man, and even Madonna’s championing
has recently brought jeers. What we expect is still, unfortunately,
generally what we get. We have to distinguish the figures “allowed” in
childhood legendry from the flesh-and-blood HUMANS who walk through our
adult worlds daily, suffering from such labels as “Gypsy.”

Widely published in academic and creative writing, former college president
Dr. Lynn Veach Sadler has seven poetry chapbooks out. One story appears in
Del Sol’s Best of 2004 Butler Prize Anthology; a novel will soon join her
novella and short-story collection. She won the 2009 overall award of the
San Diego City College National Writer’s Contest and Wayne State’s 2008
Pearson Award for a play on the Iraq wars. She has traveled around the
world five times, writing all the way, and works fulltime as a writer and an

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s