In the war years of the 1940's, in the small town of Mamaroneck where I live, Gypsies come to town most years. 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 driving 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 so 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 and has 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 moustache 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 his 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 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, with Mom and Nan standing 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.
As my coach stops in front of the welcoming slate step, crooked and raised on one end punched by a giants fist, 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 as I get down and turn to grab the man around the waist and hug him. I whisper so only he can hear, "Oh, thank you, it was especially wonderful." He seems shy. 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 to 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 for places unknown. I cross my fingers and with eyes closed, wish very hard that the Gypsies come back again next year.