Maami’d whisper in my ear, softly like light from the fire as it trickled across the floor and into my empty shoes. The words sometimes walking hand in hand, and sometimes rushing at me all at once. I’d tell her I felt sad. She’d look at me at ask “soske, čhajori?”

But, I never knew why.

At least, that little girl, that little me never knew why.

Bibi told me, when I was 13 that as Romani we have our ancestor’s pain, carried in jars in our souls, and we sing and dance so much because we’re singing and dancing for them. She said we light fires to keep them warm; candles to keep them light; but we can never forget them.

She said “romano kokal xal dukh si” and I felt her words slip into my soul with those clanking jars. Holding each one tight.

Being Romani hurts.

I hear maami and bibi Lemija singing; I hear dat and paapo bantering over a drink, tugging their mustaches. Cousins playing tag, shouting “akaj!!”, racing through the garden.

I’ve learned so much more since I was a child. I’ve learned the truth held in the eyes of the old women as they stared into the distance; the reason for the anger brewing behind wizened smiles. I’ve learned why we dance; why we sing.

Sometimes though, those jars are heavy and the lids askew – jumbled words of my ancestors come tumbling out

and I cry.

My father told me stories of his childhood. He had no “toys” – not like gadže kids. He said he only ever begged for one thing, and one thing only.

A kaľi papuša… a black doll… with skin like his mother. He never got his wish.

I used to think he was joking when dat told me they shared shoes and clothes. One good pair of everything – alternate weekends at church being saved.

Maami told stories of walking. She’d tap her feet as she did so, emphasizing how many footsteps made up her life.

sako [tap] d’ives [tap] džal [tap] dromeha [tap] … a phrase that resonates deep in my soul…

džal dromeha – to walk along a path / to exhale.

Every day we walked

Every day we exhaled.