Baba took me to the playground at Tuxedo Park constantly. We lived on the border of Parma and Brooklyn Heights, so it wasn’t a far walk. I was usually one of the only kids there as the generation of fear had already started to settle into the States; even though Parma seemed tame, being the Polish-pink-flamingo-and-paczki center that it was. Seeing anyone there was a thrill, and you got along with whoever arrived, just so you could have someone to play with. We moved there when I was five years old, from Slavic Village, specifically from Cable Avenue. Somewhere during that first year, I encountered my ethnicity for the first time, right at that playground.
You see, at that time my parents were Yugoslavian, which is more of a joke or diagnosis rather than a nationality, and we spoke Serbo-Croatian at home. My mother is a Serbian lady in the best oblique of the word, born in the village of Vrševac, Serbia, to Stamenka Savić nee Stefanović (Baba – a wise woman of Montenegrin and Serbian heritage) and Radoš Savić (a former soldier in the Royal Army who refused to return home to communism and headed tail for The States). My father is Milan Tanasijević, musician, chauffer, born in Beograd, Serbia to Milivoje Tanasijević (a Roma from Kragujevac) and Milica Tanasijević nee Klasan (a lost soul from Bjelovar, Croatia), who was “something else” during his heyday. I was Yugoslavian… at most, I was Serbian. There was no need for division, as all of the ex-Yugoslavian nationalities were still on good terms back then and willingly celebrating all saints and holidays together. To hear the Serbo-Croatian language anywhere was a delight… I would turn to stone and cautiously listen until my parents or Baba noticed that there was a speaker of the mother-language.
I was pushing myself on the merry-go-round, which was more of a game of how-long-before-my-eyes-cross rather than a thrill of speed. Baba sat on a bench behind me, crocheting away at some creation or another. I was hanging upside-down off of the merry-go-round when I realized that I heard it: The Language. I dragged myself to a stop, and looked around… there was a little boy and little girl playing in the sandbox about 5 feet away. Their mothers were clucking The Language at the speed of light… I realized the kids were, as well. I slowly approached them and stood next to the sandbox. Oh, what joy! The Language! English was still not my strongpoint, as my father explained that if I speak in “that” way, we simply cannot communicate because he doesn’t understand “that”… so hearing The Language (which, by the way, I never learned properly either) was a treat. We can understand each other with minimal throwing of sand! How great! I quietly chirped (in The Language), “Hi! I’m Angela and I speak like you do! Can I play with you?” The little boy and little girl smiled and moved over to make room.
Their mothers jumped and started screaming like the devil was in hot pursuit.
“No! You can’t play with THAT! It’s a GYPSY! IT will steal you and sell you for candy! You must NEVER play with THAT!”
They grabbed the little boy and girl and started walking to the swings. Baba looked at me over her glasses, looked at them and said, “Remember their faces, child. Those are the faces of ignorance.”
I came back to Baba and looked at her quizzically. Watching her crochet was mesmerizing, and no matter what words were coming out of her mouth, the hook was rhythmically creating a masterpiece, without loosing a beat… but she stopped. She put her hand on my head and asked, “You don’t know what a Gypsy is?”. I shook my head no. “That is a very good person,” she said, “and don’t ever believe anything else that people will say. They don’t know any better, but you do.” She picked up her hook and started the Bossa Nova again.
I sat back down on the merry-go-round and pushed myself half-heartedly. I had no clue what had gone wrong, but I believed in Baba. Something was wrong with those people; but those poor kids…
Ten years later I was freely walking into the homes of those same people, as I danced in our Serbian folklore group with that same little boy and little girl. The little boy remembered what had happened, but he never understood it either. His mother apologized to me one day, prior to my moving to Serbia. I told her that out of all the experiences I had, that one was not a mark-maker, so there was no need to apologize. She said, “No, I owe it to the world, if not to you.” We hugged.