Christiane McKenna


Christiane McKenna

                                               THE GYPSY

Somewhere, deep within the bowels of The Museum of Modern Art, is an office with a plaque that reads Tina McKenna, Gypsy Temp.

I’d held many positions there over a 15-year span between acting gigs. One day Human Resources says, “Every time you return from an acting job, you work in a different department, but the system won’t accept the title Temp for someone who has been here so many years.” I say, “Then just call me The Gypsy, because that’s what I am.”

I’ve always been a gypsy because I never fit in…in my family, neighborhoods, schools, workplace. Instead, I wander, looking for my tribe.

I am the invisible child in my home. My father was only interested in sports.

My mother thought of me as a doll who she could dress up and curl my hair using rags. She would swat me away like a fly, saying, “Will you keep quiet. You drive me crazy with all your questions!”

My brothers torment me. My oldest brother Ross never speaks to me or even looks at me until I’m 18. I remember reading the memoir he had written while attending Jesuit High School.

I didn’t get past, “We are a family of five, my parents, my two brothers and me,” before running into my mother in hysterics, wailing, “Am I not part of the family?!” She waves it off, telling me not to be so dramatic, but it solidifies the feeling of belonging nowhere.

One day when Ross is 21, he comes over for Sunday breakfast with his girlfriend Bev who would become his first wife. They were living in a hippie commune along the Russian River in Guerneville, California. At the table Bev notices he doesn’t speak or look at me and she asks him why. He replies, “She’s a maggot.” Bev shames him, saying, “How can you have never spoken a word to your sister in your life?

He then speaks his first words to me in 18 years, “Please pass the orange juice, Tina.”

At school, I am always the one picked last…or not at all. In the spring one day in kindergarten, we have a May Pole. All the little boys pick a partner. I’m odd toddler out. My very kind teacher sees my tears and then makes me bunny ears and a tail, saying that I have the important role of the Spring Bunny, because I am “special.” Even I knew at that age, it meant odd.

My hours are filled with daydreaming. Re-writing those parts of my life that are painful. I’m that “strange” child, who never fits in...the one who wanders alone, who no one wants to be friends with.

I’d knock on the front door of the Kloppenburg house, where the twins Jane and Anne live, and they would hide, giggling in the coat closet, until their mother Vera drags them out and forces them to play with me. They put a dishtowel on my head and tell me I belong to an order of silent nuns. I’m not allowed to speak and they make me mudpies they force me to eat. I didn’t care. I like belonging somewhere, even if it means I eat dirt.

In Elementary School, books replace playmates. I read high up hidden in the branches of walnut trees and willows, or behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a grotto at St. Ignatius while classmates play at recess. No one ever notices I’m missing.

In high school, there is a dance every Saturday, rotating at the 2 boys school, Jesuit and Christian Brothers and the 2 girls schools, Loretto and Saint Francis. My mother had left us by that time, so my father would drop me off at the dance every week  and I stand on the edges of the room wilt-worn as a perennial wallflower.

In college, my nickname is The Space Cadet. I’m like a big goofy dog jumping up on people with muddy paws, licking them and just wanting to be petted, but hearing “Get down!  Get off me!”

When I walk into my workplace each morning and say hello, I’m greeted with silent stares. Except for work conversations, no one speaks to me. I’m called “Golden Girl” behind my back. It is not meant as a compliment. The only people who talk to me during my day are Bea, who is the toll taker on the bridge on my morning commute on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, and the train conductor. It’s a silent world for the first 25 years. The last 5 years I finally break through and am warily accepted but just when I finally win my colleagues over, I’m fired. Alone again.

I begin to write and tell my stories at the Moth. Even though the audiences connect with my stories, the Moth community shuns me. I try to break through, but the door slams in my face every time I try to make a connection. I am a story wallflower.

Again, I retreat into myself, preferring the fanciful world that I create in my imagination to reality. Words never betray me.

Yet again, I am the gypsy, searching for my tribe.

My voice becomes fainter and fainter until it threatens to fade to a whisper. It becomes a dandelion. I close my eyes and make a wish as I blow upon it, scattering the seeds into the wind, that one day, I will love and be loved back. I will find my people.

As the seeds float daintily to the ground, I see a wallflower nestled beside me. “Who are you,” I ask, looking into gentle blue eyes like mine.

“I am King of The Storytellers from a place far away across the seas,” he lilts. Astonished, I say, “I’m a storyteller, too!”

He says, “I knew that immediately! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you! Join us. Listen to our stories and tell your own. These are your people.”

And so they are. A glorious tribe of gypsies! They, too, create magical worlds from words that spring from their souls and imaginations. They don’t pull away from me. Maybe they, too, make others fearful because of the fantastical images that frolic in their hearts. I jump up upon them with muddy paws and they embrace me with muddy paws of their own.

I’ve found my tribe to wander no more. I’m home.

I now live among the gypsies where we tell each other silly-sad stories that make time stand still. We weave the colorful streamers of the May Pole into magical stories.

And we dance, dance, dance long into the evening, until we can dance no more...and then dance again.

(c) 2021 Christiane McKenna