Over the past week I have been, like the rest of the world, captivated by the story of little Maria, the blonde and blue-eyed little girl who was thought to be kidnapped by the people who had raised her in a Greek Roma community. It was only today, when the true story came out – DNA confirmed her biological mother was another Roma woman living in Bulgaria, and that no kidnapping ever occurred — that memory flooded me. It was the summer of 2001 and I was visiting Romania for the first time since my family emigrated to Canada (when I was 11). I was in my mid-20s and eager to rediscover family I hadn’t seen since childhood. As I was waiting at the train station for my next connection, I witnessed a moment that lingered within me with such ferocity I felt compelled to capture it.
So here it is, a piece I wrote in 2001, about another Maria. (It was written before the terms Rrom and Roma became mainstream). I am posting it because I don’t think people in general (especially in the Western world) understand the fluid nature of child-rearing in close communities where poverty and poor living conditions are the norm. Taking in somebody else’s children, or asking someone to look after your own, is much more common than people in the west believe. This is all to show that jumping on the kidnapping bandwagon will only end with authorities having egg on their face — three other “Marias” were kidnapped from their parents by police in Ireland, only to be returned later when DNA showed the children hadn’t been kidnapped after all.
I am at the train station, waiting for the locomotive to Craiova. Sitting across from me, trying to pretend she isn’t staring, a middle-aged gypsy woman is perched quite comfortably on a huge sack of potatoes. Her rust-coloured dress is discoloured in patches under her arms, the result of old sweat stains that have been gradually absorbed by the flimsy cotton fabric. Bands of silver of varying widths coil around each of her chunky fingers; the knuckles of those fingers are permanently swollen from what looks like years of labouring in the wheat fields.
A little girl, no more than five, huddles between her knees. She is upset about something; she keeps her face buried in the woman’s skirt and won’t turn around, even when prodded.
“Aw, you poor wee thing,” the woman cajoles. “Come now, it’ll be all right.”
Though I’m pretending not to notice, trying to give them their privacy, I catch myself wondering what their story is. As if she’s been waiting all this time to unload it upon someone, the gypsy woman glances at me. She grins, and her wide smile reveals a row of gold teeth in place of her left incisors. She scans my face, the Swiss Army backpack next to my leg, and glances up again. “Not from ‘round here, are you?”
“Just passing through,” I say. “Going to visit my cousin in Craiova.” I realize that my accent is giving me away. The woman’s interest is piqued; it’s not often that she gets to chat with a foreigner who speaks passable Romanian.
“Bet you’re wondering what’s wrong with this lil’ mite,” she says, nudging the little girl’s shoulders. “She misses her momma, don’t you, pet?”
“Where is her mother?”
The woman’s features contort with sadness. She shakes her head. “They can’t keep her, you know. Her momma begged me to take her. I met them in a migrant camp where we were picking fruit all summer. They’re very young, her parents, so young and have absolutely nothing. Her momma saw me with my girl – look, there she is by the bagel stand, she’s all of eleven now – and said you’re so good with kids, please take my little one here with you.”
“But why couldn’t she keep her?”
The woman clucks her tongue. “Ay, if you could see them – they sleep in a tent with ten other people around, and it gets awfully cold at night. From the break of dawn they’re out in the fields the whole day, and the poor child is all alone in the camp. They worry about her, that she’s too young to look after herself. They think she’s better off with me back in my village. At first I said no, I’ve got enough trouble with my own one there, bless her heart, but this one’s momma kept imploring me to take her, so what could I do?”
The little girl rubs her face into the woman’s lap, left and right, as though she disagrees with her version of the story. I wonder if she can understand why she is being taken away. “She’s never been away from her momma before,” the woman says. “She’s a clingy one, always at her momma’s bosom. Hasn’t stopped crying once since we left this morning.”
I look at my watch. One-thirty in the afternoon. The train for Craiova is coming in fifteen minutes. I wonder when, or even if, this child will ever see her family again. The woman who is now her caretaker seems to know her way around children. She’ll be well looked after, I’m certain of it. Maybe she’ll even go to kindergarten. But her heart will always be somewhere else; to her, the transient life of seasonal laborers and nomads will be a bittersweet song. If she could have articulated it, surely she’d tell me that she would rather move with the seasons all through the continent, pitching tents in orchards and growing up to work a back-breaking job for little pay, like the Mexicans did for a century in California, than to be separated from her family.
The train’s siren whistles in the distance. It’s going to pull in any moment now. I tighten my grip on my backpack, getting ready to heave it back on. The gypsy’s daughter runs over to us, the tiny beads on her red and orange skirt making a chiming noise. She tugs on her mother’s sleeve. “Look,” she points. “Look over there.”
We turn our heads simultaneously, not toward the tracks but to the other side of the platform. The little girl’s head pops up. She squints for a second, and then the most magnificent smile breaks on her face, illuminating it.
A young woman no older than twenty is walking as fast as she can toward us, and a young man is following right behind her. As she spots us, her eyes begin to glow and her pace quickens.
The child makes a tiny sound like a yelp and jumps away from the old gypsy’s knee. She starts running as fast as her little legs can take her and leaps high into the young woman’s arms. The woman cradles the child, nuzzling her small head into her own neck. She places countless kisses on her forehead and cheeks, even as tears are rolling down her own face.
She approaches gingerly, unwilling to release her tight hold on the child. Looking at the old woman, she shakes her head. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave my baby.”
The man has caught up to us. “Thank God the train didn’t come yet,” he gasps. He wraps his arm around the mother and child and they hold each other. In this one moment the entire platform has melted around them and they are alone – a family that has nearly lost itself.
“Thank you so much,” weeps the young woman, her shining eyes directed at the peasant woman. “Thank you for trying to help us, but we have to stay together. I never realized it until now.”
They walk away slowly, their profiles dissolving into the soft golden dust that rises in the distance. “May God look after them,” the gypsy woman whispers, staring after them. I may not be religious, but right now is one of those rare moments when I feel compelled to add my wish to her prayer.
We say goodbye to one another and I watch the gypsy woman, her daughter and her large sack of potatoes board the second-class carriage. Peasants file past me, going from car to car. Their hands show the hardship they have endured: coarse knuckles twisted like gingerroots, fingernails caked with black dirt. They live a diet fortified with garlic and onions; everything around here is seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, and many still eat onions like apples, raw and barely peeled. The sight of these people and the musty goat smell that reeks from their clothes is, like much of the natural beauty of this countryside, soon to be a vanishing sight, replaced by a page in a history textbook that youngsters will find too boring to study. I tune my music player to Va Pensiero. There’s a line in Verdi’s moving aria that always stirs something in my heart: “Oh, mia patria, si bella y perduta – Oh, my homeland, so beautiful and so lost.”
I may be sitting in the air-conditioned section of my own compartment, but my thoughts trail along with that child and her family. It’s like watching my own family’s history unfold before my eyes: there’s my mother, five-year old Luci, being heaved onto a train by her own mother, soon to be dumped at her relatives’ doorstep. And then there’s my nine-year-old self, left behind at the airport, watching my mother as she departs for sunnier shores. And before us there is my infant father, curled up in an basket at my grandmother’s feet, being sent away from the father he would never know. I am part of a never-ending cycle of abandoned, traded and borrowed children; even here, on this train platform in 2001, the story repeats itself. I can only hope that in this little girl’s case it’ll have a happier ending.