Mother’s Day was never a day for us, at least not at first. We didn’t celebrate – my father didn’t write cards from his children as babies; we didn’t scamper up to the bed on Sunday morning, bruised and bent flower heads clasped in our sweaty little hands. It was just another day, like any other day. So many days were like that – Valentines Day, Halloween, Father’s Day, even birthdays. We did celebrate the coming of May (though not Ederlezi as some of our Balkan Romani friends did) and the coming of the Autumn, when we settled in for the winter, as well as Christmas and New Year (and a smattering of Saint’s Days, Name Days, and other holidays).
My bari familija, and possibly many others, in many ways celebrated mothers every day. It seems counter-intuitive that such a patriarchal culture would be so invested in its women. My grandmother, Baba Edita told me that outsiders thought that Romani women were oppressed by our men; forced into marriages and motherhood without so much as a “may I?”… My family were somewhat traditional. My grandparents and parents had arranged marriages; they upheld clothing rules (women especially – no short sleeves, long skirts, under skirts, headscarf when in the presence of men, cooking, or when among non-Romani. At age eleven girls and boys became separated, undertaking the work they’d come to do as adults – for girls, that meant cooking, cleaning, looking after younger family members and the elders, running errands (collecting wood, bottles to return for cash, buying or picking food), and doing washing. At age twelve, many were ‘betrothed’ or ‘promised’ to the son of a close (but not related) family. Dowry was talked about and arranged, but the marriage wouldn’t take place for another two or four years.
And so it was in my life.
Wives were expected to have many children – seen as blessings from God to have many children is to lead a blessed and rich life – and they were revered for their ability to do so. Women who were pregnant were tended every moment – and they were protected from negativity, sadness, and outsiders. They were given the best food and drink, the warmest blankets, the sunniest spot in which to sit. The men would not raise their voices around a pregnant woman (or her newborn infant) and would give her luck and blessings in every sentence. A women with children managed her own house and her family finances. She decided what money was spent on, she decided how the children were raised (though fathers would often dispense discipline), and she was cunning – doing what she wanted, many times without her husband’s permission or knowledge. After all, most men were gone all day working, looking for work, or collecting scrap, wood, and other salvageable items to sell.
For such a patriarchal and misogynist culture, our women were surely taken care of and valued – respected and adored – and had a lot of control, even if it wasn’t explicit.
But, Maami Babka said to me once, ” a woman is only good as a daj” [in my dialect, the word means both mother and uterus].
I can see now what she meant, that even in our value and worth as wives and mothers, we were severely limited. My mother, daughter of the Holocaust, daughter of rationing and poverty, had many demons of her own to fight, as well as the everyday discrimination, oppression, and racism our families faced. She wasn’t educated, she was married. She lost several children before we came along, her survivors. Our culture kept away from Western medicine and my mother struggled for years with depression and other mental health problems. Bibi Ajveri looked after her when she couldn’t look after herself – we were part of a family of strong women, mad women, and lost women.
I remember my first Mother’s Day. I was about to turn five. The first Sunday in March I pulled out the little card I’d made along with my classmates. Many of them Romani, and most of us clueless as to it’s meaning. Dakero Djives. I knew we were supposed to be thankful to our mothers, but I was always surrounded by a hundred mothers – aunts, grandmothers, cousins. I awkwardly handed it to her and said “Happy Mother’s Day!” She looked at me at frowned. Then, she turned to Baba Edita and asked, “so tut dinja?” [what did she give you?] Baba just shook her head, but couldn’t help smiling. None of us had a clue about this Mother’s Day thing and what we were supposed to do. So, we all stood and stared at the card for a moment, before getting on with our day just the same as always.
After that, the cards I brought home were the source of many jokes and much laughter. Mother’s Day had become a tradition, but only because for us, it was strange to single out one mother for such an honour.
I too am a daughter of poverty and struggle, but thanks to the voices of the many mothers in my life, I was able to change my direction and my fate and I feel so privileged and blessed to be where I am now.
Daje, baxtalo Dakero Djives… bijal tute som korkori.