Gypsies In Town

In the war years of the 1940’s, I live in the small town of Mamaroneck.  Gypsies come to town most summers.  There’s an open field near Mamaroneck High where they set up camp.  They arrive over several days in cars with tents and a few trucks with trailers.  Many arrive in closed wagons, painted and decorated in once bright colors and, to me, mysterious looking scrolling designs and flowers.  Those wagons are pulled by large, well-cared for horses.  Gas is scarce during the war and hay is cheap.

Mom says they are families that come together for marriages.  She warns the Gypsies steal children and I’m to play in the backyard while they’re in town.  I want to go to the Gypsy camp but I’ve only seen it when we drive by.  I’m not allowed to visit there when Mom and Nan go.  They say I’m too young.  The two of them whisper together about the camp and it’s possible dangers: pickpockets, child-stealers and black magic spells; but it doesn’t stop the two of them from going to have their fortunes told and later whispering together about their future.

When the camp is in town, a very handsome Gypsy man comes to our street with a pony cart and a bell he rings.  We know he’s here to take us kids on rides for a quarter.  One time he has a monkey on his shoulder too. Mom lets me ride in the cart all the way down the block and back.  The pony’s buff colored with a long brushed light blonde mane and a braided tail.   It’s glossy fur looks like gold in the afternoon sunlight. The cart is painted shiny black like my patent leather Sally pumps, with some delicate designs in gold paint.  The seats have red plush cushions with gold fringe.  The harness and fittings are polished leather with silver.  To my innocent eyes, it’s the height of elegance.

I take my seat alone in the cart, touching the softness of the red plush spread around me.  The driver turns to me and smiles, his big black mustache is long and soft looking—much handsomer than Pop’s grey and red one—and his teeth shine white against his dark skin.  He flicks his whip over the pony’s head and we begin our leisurely trip to one end of the long block and back. He walks next to the cart with a whip in one hand and the other on the harness to make sure the pony doesn’t steal me, a delighted little girl with blonde curls and a missing front tooth.  He walks at a slow pace, the pony clopping next to him, and I notice he has a ring in one ear, pierced.  I’ve never seen a pierced ear before.  It’s almost as fascinating as the pony and cart.

As we turn the bend in the road,  Mom and Nan and our house disappear from sight. The big maple and oak trees on either side wave their canopy over Stuart Avenue and change it from a country street to a far-away place.  The sun filtering through the leaves dance shadows across my private coach, surely a magic spell transporting us…somewhere else.  The lazy summer air fills with the drone of bees, birds and insects, the hum of a few cars or an occasional truck left with enough gas during these war years to drive the Boston Post Road, and the clop-clop of the pony on its slow journey.  Several orange and black butterflies come and visit this strange entourage.

The Gypsy turns back to make sure I’m still there.  I’ve been very quiet.  He smiles.  I smile back.  A tear slides down my cheek.  I’m so thrilled with this adventure I can’t control the joy.  All by myself.  No one else to share the magic with.  I imagine for these special moments I’m transported beyond imagination into the reality of my mind: a princess riding in a magical coach.

We go to the corner of Sophia Street and turn around.  A dog barks off in the distance, probably chasing something down by Guion Creek.  No cars pass us.  No one is on the street or in their yards.  We have the whole road to ourselves.  I look around our neighborhood for the first time with total clarity and see the Victorian houses, the large three story monsters with verandas that lace around them, gliders on some, others with a chair or two to catch the cooling summer air in the stifling heat of summer.  Two story houses, country farm style sprawling into lawns that languish down the hill in back to touch the creek.  A 1920’s French replica with stucco and odd shaped roof-line, and then our house, Mom calls it a Dutch Colonial.  Mom and Nan standing on the sidewalk talking together as they wait for me to return from my journey.  I can see them as soon as we clear the bend.  They turn and wave.

My coach stops in front on the welcoming slate step, crooked and raised on one end as if punched by a giant’s fist, but really a root from the tall maple that shades our front walk. Mom and Nan have been joined by Gongie, my grandmother.  They stop talking to greet me, their princess, as is my due.  I’m smiling so hard I fear my cheeks will crumble under the pressure.

Feet once more on solid ground, I turn and grab the man around the waist and hug him as  I whisper so only he can hear, “Oh, thank you, it was especially wonderful.”  He seems shy and a bit stiff but he pats me on the head and says nothing.  Do Gypsies speak our language? I wonder.

“Did you have fun?” Mom asks as she hands the man a quarter, plus a generous ten cent tip.

“Oh yes.”  My eyes must still be shining, not dimmed by the fading magic of the ride.  “It was wonderful. Thank you Mom.”  I sigh.  A princess must be gracious.

He turns the cart back down the street and I wave goodbye to him.  He waves back with a grin.

I give all three of them a hug before I sweep majestically up the walk.

It takes almost two days before the glow of my journey fades.  By then the Gypsies have packed up their tents and wagons, gone to places unknown.  I cross my fingers and with eyes closed, wish very hard that the Gypsies come back again next year.

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De Witt Stetten

My earliest memory of going to ‘the city,’  Manhattan, was to visit my godparents, Alice and De Witt Stetten.  They were best friends of my mother and father and I was lucky to have arrived a girl, otherwise I would be sporting the monniker, De Witt, today.  I prefer Alice.

They lived on Central Park, one of the large apartments built just after World War I, the great war to end all wars.  The city was growing by leaps and bounds and it was chic to overlook Central Park with its lush greenery, winding paths and hidden treasures, lakes, statues and meadows.

The apartment was as large, if not larger, than our big house in Mamaroneck.  I remember best the living room—almost cavernous with a grand piano in one corner.  I never heard anyone play it.  Maybe someone did once, there was a son, DeWitt, a daughter, Margaret, perhaps one of them took lessons as a child.

On the piano was my favorite piece in the whole apartment, a sculpture of Uncle De Witt’s hands, by some famous sculptor of the day.  Just the hands to less than an inch of wrist.  In repose, one hand lightly over the other.  It was done in marble, a light color, lighter than skin but only slightly.  There was a delicacy, a gentleness in the pose, the veins prominent on the top and visible as shadows when the light hit a certain way.

The adults would be on the other side of the room laughing, having a cocktail or a cup of tea, chatting about whatever nonsense adults chatted about.  I wore a plaid pleated skirt, white blouse and navy jacket, white socks and black patent leather sally-pumps.

I sat on the piano bench and stared at the sculpture.  My blonde hair was to my shoulders with the top piece twirled and twisted into a bun.  The center of the bun was left open, a convenient coliseum home for my pet turtle, George, who spent most of his life living there.  At least when I was on the move.  If I had to go, George went with me.  Seven year olds can be very demanding.

My mother knew how to keep me quiet and well mannered, several books always did the trick.  I learned to read at an early age and was happiest with my nose in a book. But I wasn’t interested in the books, George and I were fixated on the hands.

The fingers were long and tapered, but there was a strength that seemed to glow around them.  I could imagine them doing wondrous things, and in fact, that was what attracted the artist to them.  Uncle DeWitt was a renown surgeon. I sat on the piano bench and marveled at how one man could fix people and how another could make a piece of marble into a representation of something so life-like, so human.  Neither George nor I knew how it was done.  But I appreciated the skills thinking as only a child can, that they were both a kind of magic.