My Life as a Gypsy
As told to “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
“WHEN God paints his pictures you had better keep quiet. Look with your eyes, but keep your foolish tongue still!” My Aunt Lila counseled me in this way while I was still a young boy as we stood in awe of a particularly beautiful sunrise. This was typical Gypsy thinking regarding God and his marvelous creative works.
We believed in a Creator and had a sincere respect for him, even though in a simple, childish sort of way. Our philosophy of life was that the satisfying of our daily needs always depended on a Creator, God. Hence, we would never think of ill-treating the lovely creatures inhabiting the forests, streams, lakes and seas. They were his creations, and we were glad to recognize that fact.
A further part of our philosophy and way of life could be summed up in the old adage: “Tomorrow will always take care of itself!” For this reason our life was easygoing and generally peaceable. We would put forth effort to meet only present needs. With these satisfied, we would relax and enjoy life with our families and the closeknit society of our own people. We would use the world to make a living, but beyond that we would not involve ourselves with it. Its political squabbles were not our concern.
Life as a Gypsy Boy
From the East Anglia section of England, where I was born, I traveled with my aunt in a Gypsy group all over the British Isles. I was taught to have real respect for older persons, always addressing older males as “uncle” and older females as “aunt.” Never was I allowed to call them by their first names. In my later years I have always been grateful for the discipline given me whenever I was disrespectful of my aunt’s authority.
Gypsy children are never allowed to run loose, so I was not. My aunt loved me and kept me busy. She took me with her to pick watercress, mushrooms and berries, and the next day we would peddle these from house to house or take them to a nearby market.
Part of our making a living was for my aunt and me to go to farms to buy piles of manure. After putting it in bushel baskets, we would peddle it from door to door among people who had small flower or vegetable gardens.
During my early training, petty thievery was indulged in by my aunt and others in our camp. Hence, I learned dishonesty, including how to make shady deals to benefit myself financially. Once, while a youth, I befriended a lad whose parents were not Gypsies. His mother was dying of tuberculosis, and the family was so poor that they had little food to eat. Desiring to provide her with some strengthening nourishment, I took my friend along to a nearby chicken pen where we appropriated a nice plump hen. I gave it to my friend to take home, but the father made his son return the feathered booty to me upon learning that it had been stolen.
Early Religious Training and Views
My aunt’s simple faith in God always made a strong impression on my mind. At the end of day she would have me kneel beside her as she gave thanks to God as our daily Provider—even though we may have stolen a rabbit or the mushrooms, watercress and berries from other people’s property!
Most Gypsies with whom I was familiar belonged to a religious denomination, such as the Methodist Church, the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, but my aunt had no use for organized religion in any form. Her attitude toward the clergy of various denominations was one of disgust for their hypocrisy. This influenced my own religious thinking for many years. To her, some priests were hypocritical “so-and-so’s”; money-grabbing clergymen she viewed as “unclean as a goose’s excrement,” and she did not mind telling them so.
She also instilled in my young mind a strong distaste for violence. Never will I forget the scolding she gave me one day. A lady to whom we were selling goods had asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. Having been attracted by the uniforms on men in the armed services, I told her that I wanted to become a soldier. My aunt told me she never wanted to hear me say such a thing again, and if I ever did appear at her door in a military uniform I had better just keep on traveling! She impressed upon me that no human creature had the right to shed blood in man-made wars.
While growing up I began to observe the hypocrisy of the clergy for myself. World War II was approaching, and it became very evident how they shared in recruiting young men for war. One approached my aunt to ask her to let me join, and she told him off in no uncertain terms.
The more I came into association with so-called religious people, the more I was impressed with the hypocrisy of world religion. Young men would get drunk and indulge in wild revelries on a Saturday evening and then go to Mass on Sunday morning. The fact that they supposedly got their sins forgiven, only to carry on in the same immoral way in the days preceding the next Sunday Mass, disgusted me.
A Different Kind of Religion
By 1942 I was married. One day I came home and my wife told me that two women had called and talked to her about the Bible and its promises for a better future. Being inclined to ridicule anything that smacked of religion, I showed no desire to discuss the matter. Later, in northern Scotland, a man called at our camp and played a Gramophone record for my wife while I was away. It really impressed her that the man had the courage to play a record exposing world religion as a snare and a racket. My wife gave the man a meal before he went on his way.
Later, when we were around Newcastle in England again, my wife suggested we try to find these people because she felt they had spoken the truth. But shortly afterward we moved to Canada, where I thought it might be possible to make a better living.
Meanwhile, I was raising my family. I took my son along with me in my business, which was then buying and selling scrap metal. When enough scrap metal was collected to sell to a dealer, I would give my boy a pile of his own and let him deal it off, but under my supervision to make sure he did not get gypped. Thus he was trained to make his way in life.
My wife provided our daughter typical Gypsy training, teaching her to cook, wash clothes, mend and care for a baby so that she would eventually make a good wife for a Gypsy husband. My wife also trained her in peddling linens. She would take her to the warehouses when making purchases so she could observe how this business was transacted. In addition, an uncle taught our daughter how to become adept at making flowers out of wood. Thus when accompanying her mother from house to house, if the linens were not accepted, she would offer her “flowers,” making a little money for herself.
Life in North America
While living in North America, I traveled with other Gypsies all over Canada, the United States and Mexico. We schemed up a way to make some “easy money” for ourselves. What we did was not a common practice among Gypsies in general, because, as a rule, they do not go in for such blatantly fraudulent practices.
We professed to be selling “smuggled” Oriental carpets. Going into a town, we would head straight for someone we knew had lots of cash—the local priest! I would suggest that perhaps he might have friends who would also be interested, and, if so, he could get a carpet at an even lower price. Usually he referred us to the local doctor or funeral director. No priest we approached ever refused to buy our “smuggled” carpets, even when we told him they were “hot” merchandise. This further sickened me as far as having anything to do with so-called Christian religions.
A New Way of Life Opens Up
A few years went by until one day we were camped near Sarnia, Ontario. I was at home when a young woman called at our tent. The earnest way in which she talked and the things she spoke about roused my interest. A new system of things where people would live together in peace and unity and according to righteous principles was almost unbelievable! Upon leaving she promised to send a couple of men to speak to me further. Hence I told my wife that, if the men came, she was to hold them there should I be away. The young woman kept her word, and the day they called I was at home. Our discussion lasted for about five hours. When they left, my wife and I were convinced we had at last found “the truth.”
After that first long visit we saw the need to live by Bible principles. I turned to my wife and said: “What are we going to do with what we have buried under the floor of our tent?” My wife suggested: “Maybe we should throw it into the river.” My thought was that we should return the stolen goods to their rightful owner. That would be no easy job! Much danger and difficulty would be involved in returning two tons of lead ingots. Nevertheless, I think it must have been with Jehovah’s help that the task was finally done.
With regular visits from the two Witnesses we progressed in knowledge of God’s truth. Soon we could see that more was involved than just knowing the truth of God’s Word. Other big changes in our lives would have to come. One of these was to share in proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, and at this point I could not see myself doing this. So I began to find fault with the things I was learning and to plague the Witnesses with unreasonable questions. However, the kindly answers that they gave me from the Bible left no way out. It was I who had to change, not the truth of the Bible!
Our children were not left out of our discussions. It was a family study from the beginning, and we moved along together to the point where my wife and I symbolized our dedication to Jehovah in 1954. In 1960 our children were baptized after making their own decision to serve their Creator in the days of their youth.
Later, my son married a Gypsy girl from Mexico named Paulina, who had originally learned God’s truth in Argentina. (See Awake!, December 8, 1962, page 23.) She has shared with her husband from time to time in preaching the good news of God’s kingdom full time. Our daughter has been a full-time proclaimer of God’s kingdom for about five years. She is now serving with a Cuban Spanish congregation in southern Florida.
A Time of Testing
Some years ago a time of testing came on us as a family. I had an experience in which I was severely disappointed in my Christian brothers. Perhaps I should have realized that they have shortcomings just as I do, but, instead, I allowed these to make me draw back from the service of my Creator, with whom I really had no reason to find fault. As a result, we left God’s truth for about four years.
Nevertheless, we often thought about the things we had learned from God’s Word and would freely talk about them. It seemed that the truth had touched us, and we could never again be the same kind of people we had been in the past. Even though we disassociated ourselves from God’s organization and told ourselves we were free once more to enjoy the Gypsy way of life, our consciences told us we had a responsibility to our Creator, Jehovah, and in some way we must try to repay him for providing us with his truth.
Our not adhering to God’s truth bothered us. Eventually we realized that there is only one way of true freedom and that is within the safe confines of Jehovah’s visible organization on earth. Only here could we have true Christian brothers and sisters, whom we needed and who needed us. The small congregation at Melville, Saskatchewan, was where we started associating again at the Kingdom Hall. The loving-kindness of our Christian brothers there in getting us started again in Jehovah’s precious service will never be forgotten. Since that time, and due to Jehovah’s goodness, we have never turned back or stopped trying to make our advancement manifest.
Superior to Gypsy Life
Even though we can never go back to Gypsy “freedom,” yet we have a high regard for them as a people. Though many still live according to quite good principles, yet a sizable number are now infected with the materialistic ideas of the Western world. No longer content with simple things, they want flashy cars and trailers and will even cheat and steal to get them. As a result, much of the carefree spirit of the Gypsies of yesteryear has been lost, and that to their own hurt.
No longer is it our desire to steal from our neighbors, but we sincerely try to help them know that “the blessing of Jehovah—that is what makes rich, and he adds no pain with it.”—Prov. 10:22.
How much we owe to the great God of truth for the Bible, which we now heartily accept, “not as the word of men [as the clergy of Christendom do], but, just as it truthfully is, as the word of God.”—1 Thess. 2:13.
For this reason it is our earnest prayer that still others who now follow the Gypsy way of life may yet turn to the truth that will really set them free and thereby enjoy a superior way of life. (John 8:32) Also, it is my personal hope that one day soon I will see my dear Aunt Lila again, resurrected to life in God’s righteous new order. There I feel confident that her appreciation of Jehovah’s goodness and the beauties of his creation will continue increasing with each successive sunrise in a world without end.