I have forgotten her name.
I woke up this morning, fresh from a dream about Romania. It’s been over a year since we returned to the United States, so Romania is only a dream now.
In the final months of our year-long stay in the rural south, we befriended new neighbors. These neighbors lived around the corner, down the dirt road, past the final house on the electric grid, in the middle of a field. Their home was a cinder block room that appeared to originally be a farmer’s storage shed. Not now. Through the winter, three lively children and their mom shared this space. The children often walked by our house on the way to town while my kids played in our apple orchard. We connected over a smile and small talk.
One day I invited them to play. Other neighbor children didn’t climb trees, get dirty or otherwise engage in activities more associated with free-range parenting. But not these kids. They knew how to have fun. They piled on the porch swing with the kids and squealed with delight. The oldest, a responsible girl of 9, pushed the swing to heights not seen before. It was a blast. They stopped by several more times to hang out, run in the grass, climb trees and pick fruit. Always smiling, laid back and absolutely delightful.
But I felt the burden of their back story. I knew who their mother was. I passed her frequently in the mornings as I drove my kids to school. One spring day, months earlier in the pouring rain, she walked briskly on the road heading to town. I pulled over and beckoned her to hop in for a ride. She was hesitant, and I don’t blame her. I was foreigner and we had never actually spoken before, though I’m sure we both knew who each other was. We were neighbors, after all. She thanked me for the ride as I dropped her off on the main road downtown.
Days, maybe weeks later, wild flowers were in crazy bloom. I took my kids on a neighborhood walk to the edge of the fields. Children played surrounded by numerous puppies near a shack in the distance. We followed the tractor path and encountered the children, laying in the dirt, relaxing in the sun. They waved and smiled. “Is your mom home?” No, but the young girl was eager to play hostess and invited us in. I remember the piles of bedding, the heating stove, jugs of water and styrofoam take-away containers. It made sense, her mom was in town acquiring food, which she brought home every day in various types of containers.
“Where do you get your water?”
“I have to walk into the neighborhood and fill up a jug at the tap.”
I knew the answer, but I asked anyway. “Do you go to school?”
“No, but I would love to learn to read. I have to take care of my brothers.”
Their back story doesn’t just involve their mom. They are Roma, also known as Gypsies (a non-derogatory word that they often use to describe themselves). And, like all stories, it’s complicated. One might say they’ve been marginalized by society. Others might say they choose to stay separate. In Romania, I read books and articles about the Roma, greatly increasing my understanding of this people group, some of whom lived in palaces in town and others who lived in abject poverty. But in the case of these neighbor children, they were not ‘the Roma issue.’ I had the privilege of seeing them as children, playmates for my kids, and could call them friend.
Another day, the youngest showed up in particularly tattered clothes. I asked big sister if she would be interested in another outfit for him, since he appeared to be about the same size as my then-four-year old. Sure. They had never asked for anything, but as friends, I felt this was an appropriate gesture. When I returned with pants and a shirt, she stripped him down, reclothed him, and patted him on the shoulder. Perfect, she implied with her grin. “Would you like a bag to take those home?” I asked, referring to the old clothes. She looked at me and cocked her head and, with her eyes, promptly said ‘what planet are you from?’ The rags obviously had only one purpose left in life – entering the trash bin. She sauntered over to the garbage can and put them where they belonged. Then, back to playing.
The day before we moved, the three children walked by and I poked my head out the gate. “By the way, we’re leaving tomorrow and going back to America.”
“Oh,” she smiled. “We’re leaving tomorrow too, for Italy. Bye!”
“Have a good trip.” And off they skipped down the dusty gravel. Nomads, like us.
Her name was Diana.