Antioch Voices- Grace Ward

On Marigolds: Untold Stories For International Romani Day

When I was eleven years old, my paternal grandmother took me to the supermarket to buy a push-up bra, a rotisserie chicken, and introduce me to my culture—my “birthright” as she called it.

She said to me, “Now that you’re older, Gracie m’dear, people are going to start caring about what you have to say about our people. People are going to start asking you questions. It’s important to me that you don’t get it wrong.”

My great-grandparents were Holocaust refugees. They escaped death camps in Eastern Europe and fled to America in the midst of one of the most brutal cleansings Romani folk have experienced to date. They had to fight to stay alive just because of their culture. I have had to fight to learn about my culture at all. As a kid, the only film character I had to look to was Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The only other Roma children I knew growing up were my cousins, and they were just as clueless as I was.

In the supermarket that night, my grandmother didn’t bother to teach me about dikhlos or the Porajmos or how to find a good Roma husband. She spent our limited time debunking the misconceptions she knew I’d run into as a half-Roma kid in America.

“People might tell you we are dirty,” she said, “But we are actually very pure, clean people. And people might tell you we’re thieves. But the only thing I’ve ever stolen is a jelly packet from a Denny’s. And people might tell you we’re all pole-dancing hussies like that Esmeralda girl from the movies. They’re lying.”

I’m tired of the misconceptions, yes. I’m tired of only having Esmeralda to look to, yes. But I’m even more tired of being the first one to tell people that they shouldn’t say the word “g*psy.” I’m done reminding people that Roma people aren’t dirty thieves with missing front teeth. This year, for International Romani Day, I want to tell you a couple of stories about how I—a rotisserie-chicken-Roma with pale skin and an orange-slice nose—have experienced my culture.

My grandmother’s beef goulash is the best food on Earth. As a kid, I begged for the recipe, and she told me I could have it when I got married. I grew up and found a nice guy. I got a house in the suburbs, a dog, and a Christmas tree with custom photo ornaments. I figured I’d earned the right to that goulash recipe. Only then did she bother to tell me that her “famous” goulash was just canned beef stew from the Dollar Tree with a tablespoon of paprika.

“What,” she said, “You think I can afford fresh steak and potatoes? Ježišmarja, forget it. 

Finding delicacies in tough times: that’s my culture.”

When I met my partner, Brandon, a few years back, I was hesitant to introduce him to my extended family. He has a familial unit, and they are one of those infuriatingly close groups of people, like the families from sitcoms. They do Sunday dinners and game nights and plan weeks in advance for their Christmas gatherings in which all the men wear crew-neck sweaters and all the women wear Christmas brooches. So many brooches.

My family gatherings are more extended gossip sessions. There’s always food, and the slivovitz flows easily, but it’s the furthest thing from a sitcom you’ve ever seen. Famously, my Auntie Dink got too drunk at my parents’ wedding and jumped into a lake, sparking a family feud. I avoided bringing my partner home to my extended family for as long as I could—at least until I could explain to him what generational trauma is and that Roma and Romanian are not the same thing.

But on the day of my baby brother’s twelfth birthday, the time had come. My partner was going to meet my grandparents. The first person he ran into when he walked through the door was my grandfather.

Grandpa had been dying of cancer for half a decade at this point, and his already dark sense of humor had only gotten darker. We had to stop taking him to restaurants because he played a game with the waiters where he guessed where in Europe their ancestors were from. When the wait staff didn’t know if they were Croatian or Italian or Slovenian or what have you, Grandpa would get irrationally angry. We dined at home with him after that.

My partner turned the corner into my parents’ eclectic living room, and there was Grandpa, sipping on a Diet Root Beer and telling stories about how he didn’t get drafted because of his terrible eczema.

“Hey, you,” Grandpa said, “You’re dating our Grace Elaine?” Grandpa pointed with a bony finger. All my partner could do was nod, smile painted on. He was desperate to impress my family. Unfortunately, Grandpa fed on this desperation.

“Alright,” Grandpa said, “Show me your teeth.” And he proceeded to inspect my newly minted boyfriend’s teeth as though I’d brought home a racehorse and not a handsome man in his mid-20s. Nevertheless, he passed the tooth inspection and went on to be the hit of the party. I never bothered to ask my grandpa why he inspected Brandon’s teeth like that. I go back and forth from thinking it was some sick old-man joke and thinking it was some symptom of his cultural trauma. Who’s to say, really? Mostly, it felt good that he cared enough about who I dated to look him in the eyes and say, “If you hurt our Gracie, I’ll rip these fancy teeth of yours right out of your skull.”

Protecting one another, even in not-so-pretty and not-so-sitcom ways: that’s my culture. 

Grandpa died of cancer in July of last year, a few weeks after I started my MFA at Antioch. He didn’t want a funeral, so now his ashes live, unceremoniously, in a cardboard box on a shelf in my grandma’s garage, next to the cherry red sports car he bought her before he passed.

I didn’t know how to feel at first. I was glad his suffering was over, and I was devastated to have lost my goofy, overprotective, often madcap, friend. The sadness simmered on the back burner until one day I saw a chain of marigolds hung in a shop window for the New Year.

In Romani culture, marigolds symbolize restoration and recovery. They are also incredibly helpful plants to grow in a garden because their strong smell keeps away pests like squash bugs and moths. My grandpa, an avid gardener, kept a bed of marigolds in his garden everywhere he lived. They would grow in a bright orange mound, stretched across the dirt and blossoming explosively, like the birth of a new galaxy, each summer. Summer with my grandparents always meant marigolds. The smell of them. Their bright orange petals would stain my hands if I picked too many. I relished that hot orange color that meant June was here. 

I’ve tried to grow marigolds in my garden from time to time, but they never burst forth with quite the life my Grandpa could coax from them. He’d pick their blooms and stuff them into mason jars to dry over the winter, a bright orange decoration for Christmas. I remember the jars of flowers lining my grandmother’s shelves, next to my cousins’ and my school photos.

To be Romani in a country where hardly a soul knows what Romani means is not easy. It means a constant sacrifice of little bits of yourself for the ease of the American palette. As a teenager, I resented this fact. Nazis killed over one-half of the world’s Roma population between 1935 and 1945. There are very few of us left, and low literacy rates in European Roma communities mean fewer still get to tell our stories. How is anyone supposed to see my culture as human if no humans get a chance to tell you about their culture?

In any case, marigolds: that’s my culture. Happy International Romani Day.

Grace Ward

Grace Ward

Grace Ward is a playwright and author from Boise, Idaho. She is a graduate of The National Theatre Institute, Boise State University, and a current MFA candidate at Antioch University. As a playwright, her work has been produced with Connective Theatre Co, Surel’s Place, Brick by Brick Players, The Minnesota Fringe Festival, Storyfort, and more. She is also a founding member of Fishmarket Theatre Collaborative (NYC) and Haute Nautilus Theatre (Boise). When she’s not writing, Grace loves to ski, mountain bike, and collect postcards.