Shared Stories: Gypsies Stole My Heart

In this humorous coming-of-age story, Yolanda Adele captures the swirling range of emotions so many young girls feel as they enter adolescence. A visit by her loving grandmother is the pivot point of a memorable night of comedy and teenage dreams. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Yolanda Adele

When I was nearly 13 years old, a girl named Roma moved into the modest two-story house next door along with her brother, Regino, their mother, father, three aunts, four uncles, several cousins of various ages, and their grandparents. 

Roma was petite with dark skin, hazel eyes and long, lustrous black hair. Regino was 17 and muscular. He carried himself in such a regal fashion that he appeared to be taller than 5 ft 7 in. 

His thick, dark hair was like the color of the ocean at midnight as were his eyes and lashes. His bronze skin accentuated his high cheekbones and strong jaw line. His lips looked soft. I had never seen a more exotic male except in my Nana’s picture of Rudolpho Valentino as he appeared in the 1926 movie, Son of the Sheik. 

Mother said that Roma and her family were Gypsies and she warned me that they had a reputation for stealing children. That news made my adrenaline rocket like the time I rode the front roller coaster car at the end of the pier at Pacific Ocean Park.

She could not have known that what she told me sounded like an answer to my prayers. My mind was immediately filled with a kaleidoscope of mystical possibilities. The Gypsies could teach me to cast spells, concoct potions, and read the future. 

I ached with longing to escape my stress-filled life that centered on my mother’s relationship with my sometimes present, skirt-chasing father. Heck! If the Gypsies wanted to steal me, they only had to hold a gunnysack open; I was ready to jump in.

One rainy Sunday morning I saw Roma setting buckets out on the driveway. Curiosity compelled me to go outside.

“Hi, my name is Soledad. What’s your name?” I asked.

“Roma,” she said without a trace of an accent.

“I haven’t heard that name before,” I told her.    

“It means ‘Gypsy’ in our language,” she replied. “Does Soledad mean something in your language?”

“Actually it does. In Spanish it means ‘solitude.’ Hey, why are you putting these buckets out in the rain?”

“To collect the rainwater,” Roma explained. “We use it to rinse our hair after we wash it with stale beer.”  

“You wash your hair in beer?” I was astonished.

“Oh yes. It makes our hair silky.”

“And why do you rinse your hair with rainwater?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions.”

“Oh, do you mind very much?”

“No, not really. Anyway, my grandmother says that there is a natural chemical in rainwater that makes it good for hair.”

“That’s weird.”

“Well, have you ever tried it?”


“Then how can you say it’s weird? Besides it would probably help that coarse mop of hair you have!” She turned around and started walking toward her house.

“Wait!” I pleaded. She stopped, and turned to look at me.

“I want to be your friend,” I continued.  She smiled, nodded her head and went inside her house.

The rain tasted sweet on my tongue. I felt the web of depression that had entangled me for longer than I could remember washing away. I wondered if Roma might have sensed the sadness I carried and was freeing me from it with her Gypsy powers when she smiled at me and became my friend.

Through observing Roma and her family, I began to take many vicarious adventures, especially at night when I would lie on my bed which was up against the wall under my screen-less open window.

I’d listen to the soft soothing strums of a guitar wafting into my room from Roma’s front porch. There Regino and his uncles crooned into the wee morning hours, accompanying themselves with guitars and occasionally a violin or two. They sang songs in a language I did not understand with my head, but my heart knew it was about love.

I would close my eyes and see Regino, Roma, and me sitting on a red velvet flying carpet wearing moon-glasses as we glided through the Milky Way. Sometimes I’d imagine that Regino and I were alone on the carpet, holding hands while we surfed the wavy, fluffy clouds - laughing all the while. 

It seemed that nothing could ever bother me again, not even my dueling parents. I now had a magical bedroom window, a safe place for my mind to travel through.

Regino smiled at me whenever he caught me staring at him from my bedroom window, which was right next to his driveway, facing across his front yard. I was not a beauty.  It didn’t help that my hair was uncontrollably frizzy. I often wished for rain to rinse it with. 

I was developing into my womanhood. I felt awkward in my changing body. I wondered if Regino thought I was pretty. I didn’t think he would smile at me if he didn’t think that I was at least a little attractive, but then I didn’t know much about boys.

Many of our neighbors seemed to enjoy gossiping about the Gypsies who all lived together and dressed in colorful clothes.  I over-heard some neighbors telling of events after a marriage ceremony the Gypsies’ house.  

Wedding guests waited for the groom to open the door of the upstairs bedroom and come out onto the little balcony to hold up and display the blood- spotted bed linen that confirmed his bride had been a virgin. They cheered and celebrated rowdily all night.  After that the neighbors circulated a petition to get the landlord to evict the Gypsies. 

My mother had taken a job working a graveyard shift, and one morning she announced a surprise when she came home. 

“Soledad, your Nana will be coming from Texas to stay with us for a few days. She will keep you company while I work. It will be good for you to spend some time together.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful news Mama. When?”

“Whenever, Nana gets here!  I want you to be sure to clean the house before you go to school and again when you get home. Now get your chores done and be quiet about it. It’s been a long hard night at the factory. I’m exhausted.” 

“Do you want me to bring you some breakfast Mama?”

“No. I’m going straight to bed. Just get yourself something to eat before you leave for school.”
After I drank two cups of black coffee, I quietly closed and locked the front door. Roma was already waiting for me at the bottom of the concrete steps.

“Hi,” I said softly.

“Hi, why the sad face?”

“My Mom got home from work, started barking orders at me, and never wished me a happy birthday.” 

“Then I get to be the first person to wish you a happy birthday. I wish I had a present for you.”

That made me smile as we started walking to school.

“Soledad, if you could have anything at all what would you want for a present?”

“If I told you, you would make fun of my silly wish.”

“I would not. Besides I can guess what it is.”

“Go ahead try,” I said mockingly. 

“Okay.” How about a serenade from a certain tall, dark, and handsome BROTHER OF MINE!” she shouted.

I felt my face become flushed. How could she have known? That’s exactly what I had been daydreaming about! That’s not fair, I thought. She does possess mind -reading powers!

“I see how you look at him when you think he is not looking at you.” 

“You don’t know what you are talking about, Roma.”

“Don’t worry I won’t tell him. Okay, okay, forget it Soledad. Why are you getting so mad?” 

We walked the rest of the way in silence. I did not see her after school, and I missed walking home with her. I was embarrassed that she had guessed my wish.  I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.  At my front door I was greeted by my Nana’s effervescent little giggle.

“Nana!” I rushed into her outstretched arms.

Hija, let me take a good look at you.” She spun me around. “Where is the little girl I visited last summer? You are a young woman already. Did you forget your promise to me?”

“Oh, no Nana; I promised that I would always be your little girl. And I’m… just a little taller, that’s all.” Slowly a smile appeared on Nana’s face again.

“I’m making for you a birthday cake. Do you still like cake?”

“Yes, I do, Nana.” I hugged her and inhaled the delicious aroma of vanilla from her apron. Just then Mama walked into the kitchen. 

“Ok. Ok, enough you two. Soledad, go fix your bed for Nana and make a bed for yourself on the floor. I have to go to work now, no matter whose birthday it is.  I will see you both in the morning; I’m working a double shift.” 

“Have a good night, Daughter,” my grandmother wished her.

“Yes, have a good night, Mama.”  As soon as I was sure that my mother was gone, I asked Nana if Roma could come in to have birthday cake with us.

Si. That will make it more of a party,” she said.

I stuck my head out of my bedroom window and yelled for Roma. She ran out of her house and stood in front of my window.  I was happy to see her.

“I just want to ask you over to meet my Nana and have birthday cake with us after dinner, about 6:00 if you want to.”

“Sure, I do. I guess you’re not mad at me anymore, huh?”

“I wasn’t really mad at you Roma.”

“Then, okay! I will be at your birthday party.”    

Whenever my mother and I were home at dinnertime, she ate in front of the T.V set in the living room, and I’d eat in my room. We didn’t care for each other’s company, I guess. But Nana and I sat at the kitchen table together for dinner.  Nana sweetly refused to let me help with the dishes, so I just sat at there and cleaned the table over and over again. When Nana finished the dishes, she poured us each a cup of coffee and sat down.

I watched curiously as she removed a safety- pin from the underside of her apron that had thirteen dollars pinned to it. She gave it to me and wished me a happy birthday.

“Oh Nana, thank you, but it’s really too much! How about I just take five dollars, Ok?”

“No! A dollar for each year you are old is not too much. A million dollars for each year you are old is not too much, if I had it.” Her effervescent giggle sealed the deal. I leaned over to give her a tight hug.

I told her that Mama would be upset if she knew that Roma came to visit because she was a Gypsy. “Then we should not upset your Mama huh?” she answered with a wink. At that moment I loved her more than I knew was possible.                                               …

When Roma came over, she and Nana took to each other just like I knew they would. The three of us laughed until our sides ached when we tried to cut what Nana called ‘The Leaning Tower of Pisa’ birthday cake because it came out of the oven crooked.  Nana tried to glue it straight with gooey icing. That only made it heavier, causing the cake to lean even more.

Roma, Nana, and I played many card games, Crazy Eights, and Old Maid before Roma showed us her tarot picture cards and read our future from them.

She told Nana that a tall, dark man was going to come into her life. Nana said, “Good, I hope that it is a T.V repairman. My television has been broken for months. That’s the only use I have for a man at my age.” We all shrilled with laughter. 

Roma’s cards predicted that I would be granted a wish for my birthday. It was the best birthday party I ever had. As I walked Roma to the door, she whispered that her birthday gift to me would be a little late. I told her that she had already given me more than she realized. I hugged her good night.

I dressed for bed and put blankets down on the floor where I would sleep. I lay there watching Nana as she undid her hair that was pinned up in a bun. She brushed her long coarse hair. I told her about washing her hair in beer to make it more manageable. To my surprise, she said she used to do that many moons ago. I guess it really wasn’t that weird after all.  Nana took her teeth out and put them in a glass of water on the windowsill. 

“Are you sure that you locked the doors, Soledad?”  I nodded yes.  “Aren’t you afraid to be home alone at night while your mother is working the night shift?” She didn’t give me a chance to answer.

“Soledad, you have to be more careful now that you are becoming a young lady - and Gypsy men living right next door. I know that Roma is a lovely, sweet girl, but I don’t know about her family, about those men sitting outside. And why doesn’t your mother get this window screened and fixed so it will close?”

“Well I’m not afraid of the Gypsies. I’m afraid when you start to sound like Mama.” 

“Soledad, there things in life that can ruin a young woman, that you don’t understand yet.  But I’m tired and don’t want to talk about such things right now.” She turned off all but one small light, leaned down to kiss me, saying “Goodnight, birthday lady.” Then she got into bed.
“Good night, Nana.” And it was a good night, until about midnight.

I thought I was getting really good about dreaming of Regino because I could hear him singing my name so softly, and romantically;  even after I opened my eyes, I could hear my Nana snoring too.

Quickly I realized that Regino was singing “Happy Birthday” just outside my window. At the same time my Nana bolted up in bed. I could see her reach for her glass of water containing her teeth. Before I could shout “No. No Nana!” She had tossed the glass, teeth and all out of the window. The music stopped!

“What is it child?” She demanded to know.

“It’s Regino” I said sobbing.

“Who is Regino?”

“Only the boy who stepped out of my dream to serenade me just to be hit with a glass of water and your teeth!  He will probably hate me now and forever!” I was weeping uncontrollably.

“Stop that crying, niña. Take the flashlight and go outside and find my teeth before your mother gets home, or she will give you something to really cry about and send me packing.” I started to protest to no avail.

I grabbed my robe but couldn’t find my slippers. I prayed that Regino wouldn’t be out there, and when I peeked around the corner, I didn’t see him. I turned on the flashlight and looked around for Nana’s teeth. The cold grass made my bare feet feel numb. As I walked pass the driveway, Regino stepped out of the shadows into the moonlight. He was holding Nana’s teeth in one hand. He held his index finger to his mouth signaling me to be quiet.  Now I felt numb all over my body.

He steeped in close when he handed me Nana’s teeth. He wiped my tears with this thumb; he then glided his hand round my waist pressing my body to his. As my numbness melted away, he tenderly kissed my throat before covering my mouth with his. His breath near my ear caused a shiver as he whispered in broken English, “Happy Birthday, Beautiful Lady.” 

At that moment I realized what Roma had given me, a one- of- a kind gift. He took the back of my hand and brought it up to his soft lips, then disappeared into the dark, almost mystically. I stood there weak and unsteady wondering if it had really happened. Or was I imagining my encounter with Regino, as I had countless times before. My question was answered when I realized that I was holding Nana’s teeth.

It wasn’t too long after that night that Roma, her family, and the man of my dreams moved away from our neighborhood. 

In a way my mother was right. The Gypsies did steal something… my heart, and in return they gave me a sense of fun, adventure, and awakened a sense of passion in me.