How’s your leg, mother?

Author: Ivana Simikova/Julia and Marta Kotlarova
Location: Brno
Julia Kotlarova is my colleague at DROM, the Romani center in Brno.
"I was trained to be a hairdresser. After my training was over I worked for ten years in that profession. People liked me and I had regular clients: I gave them the love I feel for fellow creatures.
When I got married I moved with my son Michal to Slovakia. At first I worked as a hairdresser there too, but after the 1989 revolution any state-owned businesses were closed down: that included my beauty parlor. So I decided to open my own business. I got a loan from the local authorities, and paid it back in installments. It wasn’t easy to get customers at first, because I didn’t speak any Hungarian, which was the second language in that part of the country. But I did manage to learn, and started doing quite well.
Gradually, though, there began to be tension between me and my partner. Her family didn’t like my being a Rom. So I decided to come back to Brno. A friend I had worked with owned a beauty parlor, and she gave me a job.”
Then something happened. I found out about this from Marta, Julia’s twin sister.
Of course Marta is about forty too, but she looks much younger: she is slim and has a good figure. She is not married and has no children, but is helping raise Julia’s fifteen year-old son Michal.
Marta and Julia were brought up in foster homes since they were five, and their family includes the two of them, Michal, and Jessy the dachsund. Their lives have been hard, and they rely almost exclusively on each other.
Marta helped Julia financially when Michal was little, but Julia is paying her back now that Marta is recovering from a serious injury which has also to some extent affected her state of mind. She is on crutches and has to stay at home, and she can’t fully take care of herself. Sometimes she gives in to despair. I was happy that it helped Marta to relax when I went to get her story.
The sisters live on the same street, not far from each other. So when I went to record Marta’s story, Julia went with me, first showing me her own flat. I was surprised by the difference between their flats: Marta’s is comfortably furnished, while Julia’s is smaller and poorer. I particularly liked the dachshund’s place: a big plastic foam mattress with a blanket, a little pillow, and two toys. You can see that they really love him – not only because of that, but also by the way they treat him and the way he responds to them.
“We had a difficult life with our family.” Marta said. “They were nomads, and we were treated cruelly by our parents and our stepsisters and stepbrothers. Both of us have scars on our bodies from knife wounds and cigarette burns. We were taken away from our family and placed in a foster home when we were five.
We were brought up as Czechs and still think and live that way. It was only during the past few years that we met any Roms, and we didn’t consider ourselves to be Romani.
But we’re religious and we met a priest who worked with Romani adults as well as children. One day when we in the car with him we heard Romani music on the stereo. We were very moved and suddenly felt that we were Roms.
So we decided to look up our family, especially our mother. The priest helped us find her.
When she opened the door, mother immediately recognized us and we recognized her.
Julia remembered that mother had had a sore leg since she was little and lifted up her skirt and asked ‘How is your leg, mother?’
We met her three more times, and mother explained to us why the family had treated us so badly. We were illegitimate, and they were Olash.
Mother died soon after that, but these few meetings helped Julia and me reconcile ourselves to our lives, settle our relationship with her – and accept that we are Roms.”
“Of course I told my friend and boss about finding our mother and about what she told us,” Julia said. “But that made her afraid of my Olash relatives, and she fired me.
I had trouble finding a new job. Mostly I was not hired because I was Rom. Nobody cared about my past experiences or about the fact that I was a skilled hairdresser. But I would take any job to feed litle Michal. I became a cleaning woman. I cleaned three large apartment buildings and a supermarket.
All this work made me ill. I had to have surgery, and then I took the opportunity of being trained as a Romani assistant and also started to work at a school. Although I had to leave that job, I completed the training and tried to help – for free – whenever my knowledge was needed. And now I’m working at DROM.”

No Responses to “How’s your leg, mother?”

  1. i really enjoyed reading your story. Is it easier now that you are working at Drom? I am Jewish and live in the USA. I was married to a Rom for 15 years. Now I am alone, but after so many years I feel like half of me is one way and half of me is the other way. I hope i hear from you. wendy

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