A Gypsy Finds “The Way”
IN 1929 I was born in a tent in north Wales to a family of Romanies, or, as most people call us, Gypsies. For years thereafter, I lived according to the ways of the Gypsies, travelling throughout Wales and southwestern England. It was a simple way of life, disturbed only by the fact that every week or two we were forced to move.
My parents, along with us four children, travelled in two horse-drawn waggons. We children slept in a four-wheeled “barrel” waggon that carried our household things. (If a haystack or barn was handy, we all slept there.) A two-wheeled “matchbox” cart carried our camping equipment and tools. To lighten the load on our horses, we children generally walked.
Whenever possible, we would find campsites in the woods, well out of the sight of house dwellers. This helped us avoid their hostility. Before each move, Father had us pick up any litter and sweep the grass. We left everything tidy.
The Ways of the Gypsy
How did we make a livelihood? Hop picking in Wiltshire and Herefordshire was one of our seasonal occupations. This was always a happy time. Gypsy families, though camped apart from one another, would gather round a campfire in the evenings, playing music, singing, and telling stories. We were poor but free from the cares that go with material possessions.
At other times of the year, Father made mats and baskets out of bulrushes (marsh plants). We would collect the rushes and also small willow branches for the basket frames. These we boiled, bleaching the rushes and enabling us to remove the bark from the willows. Using dyes he made from plants, my father decorated the finished articles with paintings of wild birds or animals. Gypsy men, though, never participate in actual selling. So the rest of us would sell them from door to door, and for good prices at that!
Father also showed us how to make such things ourselves. We learned, too, to form flowers from paper and wood, to break and train horses, and to identify wild herbs and use them as medicines. He took us to the garbage dump and showed us how to take whatever was of use, including food. But we also knew how to catch rabbits, hedgehogs, and all sorts of wild game for our pot. When these were in short supply, we saw no wrong in taking a chicken or two, or a few vegetables, from a farmer. We reckoned that he could well afford it, and after all, we were hungry. We also learned to cook nettles, rose stalks, honeysuckle flowers, all kinds of wild herbs, and, as a special delicacy, snails. But many a day we had no food at all.
From the time I was four, my mother taught me to beg, sell, and steal. First she would make sure that I was poorly dressed and without shoes. Then she would send me alone to a house, ordering me to cry at the door. If I did not feel like crying, she would slap my legs so that I had tears in my eyes anyway! I would tell the householder that I had nothing to eat. Few could resist the appeal of a bedraggled, weeping little girl.
I also learned another craft common among Gypsies: fortune-telling. Actually, our “fortune-telling” usually amounted to little more than observing people and discerning what they wanted to hear. But as I learned in later years, this craft can also involve the supernatural. For me, though, using cards, tea leaves, or the lines of a palm was only a gimmick. And I was successful only with people who wanted to cooperate.
Fears of Hell
Like most Romanies, my father was very religious. I do not mean that he went to church. Far from it. He used to say that the pomp and ceremony of the churches showed they belonged to “the old man,” as he used to call the Devil. Early every morning, rain or shine, my father would go into the open, kneel down, and pray aloud to God. Sometimes his prayers awakened us. I asked why he prayed aloud, and he replied: “God gave me a voice, so I should use it when speaking to him.”
So from my father I got to understand a little about God, Jesus, and creation. Once, we were camped in a limestone quarry, near a kiln in which rock was burned to produce lime. We used to climb onto the kiln to soak up its warmth. Father told us that hell was like that kiln, burning day and night. There is where I would be going, he said, if I was a bad girl. That thought terrified me!
My parents thus maintained strict discipline. We were not allowed to wear makeup or short dresses or to smoke. I remember one occasion when my married brother, then 25 years old, visited us. By mistake he lit a cigarette in my father’s presence, only to have it knocked from his hand with a firebrand!
When I was about 11, my parents’ marriage broke up, and they separated for the second and last time. I stayed with Father. We travelled around together until I was 19, when I married a young soldier. He was not a Romany. Father was terribly upset and refused to come near me for 15 years.
Leaving the Gypsy ways was far more difficult than I ever imagined. For the first time in my life, I lived in a house. Yet I had no idea how to manage a house or even how to cook on a stove.
Then my mother developed tuberculosis and sought my help. While nursing her, I contracted the disease myself. Five years in a hospital left me with one kidney and three quarters of a lung. Meanwhile, my husband divorced me and remarried. Eventually I also remarried, but after a troubled—and at times violent—ten years, this marriage, too, ended in divorce.
Finding “The Way”
The year 1959 brought the most dramatic change yet in my way of life. Two ladies who were Jehovah’s Witnesses called. I listened and accepted a couple of their Bible magazines, not revealing that I could not read. One of them, Marie Nightingale, came back to see me. Though I did not want to get involved, I kept accepting her offer to return. She came twice a week, sometimes leaving magazines. After she left, I would be so frustrated by not being able to read that I would tear the magazines to shreds.
But I did like what she was telling me about the Christian Way, particularly the thought that Jehovah was a God of justice and freedom. (Acts 9:2) He did not punish humans in a fiery hell as my father believed. Why, the Bible hell, I learned, was simply the grave! (Psalm 37:28) Too, I learned of God’s marvelous promise of an earthly paradise.
So after three months, I admitted that I could not read or write. Marie, though, urged me to learn and offered to help. It was painstaking work, for my mother tongue was Romany and my English was very poor, consisting mostly of slang. When my children started school, they treasured learning to read and write and were also glad to help me. After four years, I was baptized in December 1963. I had found “The Way.” Marie continued to help me twice a week for five more years. Her persistence overwhelmed me. She had not despised me as an illiterate Gypsy nor abandoned me because of the enormous task involved in teaching me.
Keen now to tell out the good news that so comforted and delighted me, I enrolled as a pioneer, or full-time preacher, in 1972. I am still enjoying this soul-satisfying work of helping others learn of “The Way.” And what a joy to have my own daughter, Denise, join me in the full-time ministry! For five years my son Stephen also was a pioneer, which laid a fine foundation for carrying his present responsibilities both in the congregation and as a parent.
I am glad to say, too, that my father and I were reconciled. He stayed with me from time to time during his closing years, attending Witness meetings and enjoying especially the lack of ceremony and the emphasis on the Bible. He died at 87 years of age. In accordance with his request and with Romany custom, his brother then burned my father’s hut and all his possessions.
The Gypsy way with its travelling and campfires and music is but a distant memory to me now. I give thanks daily that I have been liberated both from the darkness of illiteracy and from spiritual ignorance. For with Jehovah’s help, I have found a far better “Way.”—As told by Beryl Tuck.
[Picture on page 18]
Beryl Tuck, on the left, with her immediate family