Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Carefree lifestyle hid darker side of gypsies

About the time people began to ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I imagined it would be great to be a farmer like Dad and wear bib overalls all of the time. Now in my 80s, I realize that my lifetime interests may have also been influenced by something we saw at the roadside as we drove back and forth to Olivet Church, east of Columbia.

There were often tall, covered wagons parked beside Fulton Gravel — now Route WW — near Carlisle School and a small branch of Grindstone Creek. Children waded in the creek, horses grazed near the creek and the women cooked over open campfires. Dad and Mom called the people gypsies.

Gypsies! They were short people with very black wavy hair, and at night, lanterns hung inside their tall wagons, creating eerie shadows as they moved around in their canvas "houses."

It looked like fun, especially when they were singing around the campfire at night or if a fellow was playing a fiddle. This level spot was large enough for three or four wagons and their many horses.

Mom and Dad didn’t stop and visit with them and were glad when they left, but I didn’t know why. Their way of living out in the open looked great to me. As the years passed, I learned that gypsies were beggars who told sad lies about hungry children and bad luck.

Some people thought gypsies were just too lazy to work, but they were a cult, born free to live without rules and to dodge census takers.

Sometimes the women wore gaudy skirts and huge dangling earrings, and they made money at local fairs by telling people’s fortunes. Dad and Mom had no part of that. They said: "The men are dishonest horse traders, and the women are not only beggars, they’re also thieves." There were few nice words for gypsies.

I was in my teens when I helped a grocer keep an eye on two women "shopping" in their big black cloaks with pleats and deep pockets. One jabbered excitedly to distract the storekeeper while the other gathered extra things and stuffed them into the pockets and pleats of her filthy black garments.

Men offered to doctor sick animals, particularly horses, with herbs. Farmers whispered about unfair horse trades and even told of horses that mysteriously disappeared in the night.

Before the law could locate them, the gypsies had disappeared to parts unknown, leaving no evidence that could be used against them.

My 1876 encyclopedia calls India the gypsy "fatherland" and says that small bands of gypsies roamed in Europe before the eleventh century. "Inveterate vagabonds," they suddenly appeared in Germany in hordes in 1417, "traveling on foot and camping at night in fields, being thieves and fearing arrest in cities."

Gypsies spread through Greek-speaking countries and finally to many counties of the world. My teenage children and I saw them in England in 1966 when touring by bicycle. Their "wagons" were small tents and big old black cars, and they offered trinkets for sale on card tables.

Remembering my childhood, we pedaled faster as we passed and didn’t stop or speak.

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