Once Upon A Memory: A Release

He said his name was Mack and he came from Bahstan, and as I started to call him Mack I realized that his name was actually Mark. Mark was a congenial man a bit older than me, which would put him on the upper end of middle age. He told me that he had been following my books and he was at my book signing for "Bad Dog" which came out in 2000. This was a loyal fan, and he was out on a night that snow was predicted, and he was eagerly awaiting my event for "Once Upon A Memory" at the University Book Store. He was early, and he was alone. 

Many people think that book events are glamorous things- akin to movie premieres. That may be true if you are J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman, but for the majority of us, it is hit and miss. We want to celebrate our books and we want others to celebrate our books, but mostly we want them to find their way into readers' hands and hearts. That process is a gradual one, sometimes glacial, as word-of-mouth spreads, or if you are lucky, as buzz begins and the media helps your book take wing and fly.

It is hard work to create a book, and it is even harder work to launch it. There are untold folks along the way who breathe life into this, your creation, and help it pass from the reaches of your imagination into a solid and tangible object that people would love to own and cherish. The list begins with agents and editors, art directors, production people, printers, proofers, people bringing coffee, spending countless hours in meetings, publicists, marketing gurus, sales people, distributors, truck drivers, warehouse workers, container ship captains and crew- as most books are printed overseas and then journey far and wide to find their homes again, independent bookstore owners, managers from large store chains, purchasers for online stores, reviewers for magazines and newspapers, bloggers, and the list continues with friends, who I call "my secret sales force" who turn the cover face-forward in shops, who tell stores to order it, who give it as gifts. So many hands turn these pages and they deserve recognition and gratitude. 

"Once Upon A Memory" has taken this journey, and it has not been solo. Both Renata Liwska and I are on it together. We had not met in person, nor talked during production of the book. All correspondence went between us and our esteemed editor, Connie Hsu at Little Brown Books for Young Readers. As the December 3rd launch date approached and I was working with my local independent bookstore, Secret Garden Books to create a beautiful event, I hatched a plan to get Renata to come to Seattle from her home in Calgary, Canada. The plan worked and I was very excited to be driving to SeaTac Airport on a chilly, but clear early December morning to bring Renata back to my house. 
Renata and I bonded, as I had hoped we would. We were both artists, and my three-quarter Polish-Russian heritage and her 100% Polish origin made me feel like we were connected before we met. We walked to coffee shops and drew things, bought art supplies and clothing... we talked about books, characters, animals, stories, and we prepared for our Tuesday evening launch for "Our Book."
A lot of work went into the launch. In advance I had made around one-hundred-and-fifty paper owl feather bookmarks and cut them out with a scissors while sitting next to our wood stove. I sent out Evites, and created an event on Facebook, cross-promoted it with my different writers groups, and I worked on the window at Secret Garden Books with help from Dawn who works there.
I made signs and baked brownies. I bought apple cider and Portuguese vinho verde. I asked my amazing neighbor and friend, Savitri Parsons (I dedicated the book to Savitri, her husband Jon, and especially to their son, Miles.) to bake cookies (she baked these incredible almond ball cookies dusted with powdered sugar) and take photographs because she is a pro. My friend Teresa Bledsoe brought quiche and fruit, and she took on a very special mission, one that I didn't know was going to be part of book launch planning. I won't go into details in this post, saving it for the future, but I will say that my mentally ill father, who had threatened me not too long ago, made an appearance just as the event was underway, but with advanced warning from the store, Teresa worked her charms and kept things on a very even keel. 

The launch of "Once Upon A Memory" went beautifully. There were probably sixty or seventy friends and guests in the cozy store and we all had fun.

Everyone was patient and waited in line while Renata and I signed and chatted. Secret Garden Books owner Christy McDanold joined in the celebration: she is wearing the red sweater above.
Renata and I were exhausted but so thrilled to launch "Once Upon A Memory" together. We stayed up talking in my living room until past midnight buoyed by the energy of the evening.

The energy from our book launch has continued and so has the buzz. "Once Upon A Memory" has received many incredible reviews including a Starred Review from Kirkus Magazine, a beautiful blog post from Kirkus Blogs writer Jules Danielson, who also created this lovely post on Renata's gorgeous illustrations on her "7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast" blog. It is an "Indie Next Pick," and it received a Picture Book of the Year Honor in the "Heartfelt category" from the Huffington Post. Super-Librarian Nancy Pearl said this on Twitter: Once Upon a Memory: Another winning picture book from the ever inventive Nina Laden. And the illustrations by Renata Liwska are marvelous. √ it out. Many friends who blog have also given it rave reviews. All of this warms my heart, especially since the book is 18 days old as I type this. Yet, I know that isn't really true. Years have gone into making it. 

This brings me back to Mack, I mean Mark, who was waiting for my book event at the University Book Store last night. Mark was the ONLY person waiting. There was no one else, save for both Anna and Lauren who work there. Poor Caitlin was out with a cold and Duane had been working since 8am and couldn't be there at 7pm. Maybe it was the forecasted snow. Maybe it was the fact that everyone was off doing their pre-Christmas whatever-you-do-pre-Christmas-things. It didn't bother me a bit. I knew I would sign the University Book Store's huge stack of books and that they would sell them in short order. And Mark? Mark had a magical evening one-on-one with the author. 

Mark's eyes lit up as he told me how much "Once Upon A Memory" meant to him. It was like watching that scene in "Ratatouille" when hardened critic Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille and it immediately transports him back to his childhood. "This page especially," Mark said as he pointed to the page "Does work remember it once was play," "this brings me back to my childhood and our sugar maples," he told me. "I loved playing in those leaves," he said dreamily. "I still like raking leaves because of that," he added. Then he told me, "of all of your books, this one is my favorite." 

This may not have been my biggest book event, but seeing how "Once Upon A Memory" touched one man, I must say that I will never forget it. This is the reason I love to create books. This is the incredible release I get when my book gets let out into the world. It's not about the big buzz or the hype. It is about hard work, and quiet love. Thank you Mark, for coming to my event. And thank you all for reading my books and this blog. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

With Love,


Oh, My Dear Cali...

We lost our sweet girl, Cali yesterday. She flew away and now is free of pain. I want to share a letter that I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago. It will be included in a future book called, "A Letter to my Cat" which is going into production soon. It was a coincidence that the letters for the book were being compiled and a dear friend of mine, Karin, knew the woman who was doing the book.

Here is my letter, which is helping me grieve the loss of our "Little Bird."

She is sitting in my lap right now and I want to remember the warm rhythmic faint purring, the pointy ear tufts, the gorgeous orange, black, tan and white velvety-soft fur, but she is not comfortable. She is circling, trying to find a position that doesn’t hurt. She is breathing a little harder, a trilling sound, which must be the pain. I started calling her “Little Bird” yesterday because of that sound and because she has become so tiny.

Oh, My Dear Cali,
Cancer brought you to us, and  now cancer is taking you away. My heart is breaking constantly.

I will never forget the day we met. You were on the corner of our street and you ran out to greet us, my husband and me. You meowed and meowed so many different sounds. You were telling us a story but I didn’t speak cat. After you followed us for a mile on our walk, we kept looking back and you were still there, I decided to ask the guy in the house that you greeted us in front of what your story was. By then I knew your name was Cali. It was printed on your tag.

The man in the house, Jason, told us that you were three years old and you had come from Chicago all the way to Seattle because your first “person,” Jason’s sister-in-law, had died, very young, from cancer. You needed a home because you didn’t get along with Jason’s cat, so he had put you outside. That was not good enough for a feisty feline such as yourself. You wanted your own house and family and you chose us.

Dear Cali, you got much more than you could have imagined: a big, old city house with three floors, two out-buildings, three boys growing up, and soon a cottage on an island. You also got my husband and me: both self-employed, so we were always around and we both loved to cook- this was a house full of good food, and bonus: there were no other cats or dogs!

I grew up with a menagerie of animals: cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, turtles, fish, and whatever I brought home from fields and woods: frogs, snakes, bugs… but my husband only had dogs when he was a kid. He claimed to not like cats, the nerve! You saw that as a challenge and you worked him good. It turned my heart into a mushy puddle watching you use your wiles and ways. He was soon talking to you in baby-talk and letting you sleep on his chest. You have magic charms, my dear Kitty-Kitty.

For so many years we were a family unit: five humans and a feline. You sat on a high stool while we cooked and ate, and you always participated. Our friends fell in love with you, even the ones who didn’t like cats. You talked to them; you paid attention to them; you took their laps for a test drive, and they always left saying that you were “the only cat they liked.” Having had both cats and dogs, to me, you exhibited more dog-like behavior: you came when you were called, you were very people-oriented, and you memorized the sound-signature of my husband’s car, bicycle and later, the Triumph motorcycle, and you would race out the cat-door to greet him as he pulled up. You had such a crush on him, I must admit that it made me jealous. He kept saying, “it’s because I’m the Alpha-male.” But it was beyond that. You worshipped his smelly socks, you gave his fingers and toes little love bites, and you licked his armpits! Even I wouldn’t do that, and I’m his soul-mate.

But things weren’t always so rosy, yet you not only stayed when things got truly stinky, you rose to new levels and performed your duty over and over again as a nurse-cat. You weathered the first storm as my husband got very sick and was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Then you became a recovery cat when two of our family members wound up addicted to drugs and we helped get them clean. You watched like a hawk and alerted us if they tried to leave the house. You provided warmth, love, and you were on top of whoever needed you the most. Your next patient was my mentally ill father. He had refused to shower, but that did not bother you one iota. You sat in his lap like a queen. And then last winter when my husband almost died from heart disease and had a triple-bypass, botched surgery, an emergency room visit and then thoracic surgery to remove a blood clot you would not leave his side, his shoulders, or his lap. You gave and gave.

I was lucky to not need your nurse services, but you have provided me much more, my dear little whisker-face. You give me inspiration. Since I am a children’s book author and illustrator, this is very welcome. I know there are dogs in my books, and termites, pigs, and bulls… and there is a cat book you inspired that I have not sold yet, but someday I will, and you will be immortalized. In my heart and mind you already are. I never get tired of you interrupting my painting to ask to sit next to the propane stove in my studio, although you hate when I have to talk on the phone and you try to meow over my voice so that I can’t hear the other person. I have drawn you, painted you, photographed you, written about you- for fourteen years now. I’ve watched you go from a spunky three-year-old to a chubby middle aged purr-son, and now you are my fragile “little bird.”

I wish I could have read your mind or your actions when you started acting so strangely four months back. You were howling, eating constantly but losing so much weight, and you were pulling the fur out of your right rear hip. You had also licked the emulsion off of a Christmas photo-card from our librarian friends in Bend, Oregon. The vet said you had hyper-thyroid and fleas. So we treated you and the howling stopped. You started eating and sleeping better. You didn’t pull out so much fur. We thought we had it all figured out, but then your right rear leg started sliding out under you while you sat. This was the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope. You were also trying to give us a message when you were pulling out that fur. You didn’t have fleas. There was a tumor growing in your leg. By the time we discovered it, it was too late. Our hearts were broken as the vet told us that at your age it was not good to go down that long road of oncologists and test after test, but we understood. All we could do is love you and treat the pain.

We are treating the pain and it is helping you a little, but we know the end is coming soon, and the pain from that knowledge is killing us. Little Bird Cali- we will have to give you wings when we know that you hurt too much because that is the best we can do to make your journey easier. Our journeys are not over yet, but I hope that we can all find each other someday somewhere where there is always good food and no one gets sick.

Last night you climbed into bed with us for the first time in months, laying down between our shoulders, and you stared deeply into both of our eyes. At that moment we both felt your love and it made us so incredibly happy to be able to be there- all together. You have brought more to our lives than so many people, including members of my own family. I wish that there was a way we could talk, just for a little bit, but I know that isn’t possible. I tell you all of the things I want you to know even if you can’t understand them. I’m writing this letter so that I can share my love and my pain knowing you can never read it.

Yet, I know life is mysterious and if there is a way, I want you to know that you are in my heart. Forever and always.
Your human,


The Things That You Are Looking For Will Find You

Five months have slipped by. A summer of painting new books. A summer of detours around fallen bridges and traffic circles. A fall of harvesting, canning, preserving, creating, sharing. Time has been in short supply and yet so much has been accomplished. Ideas and poems have been written. Work has been submitted.
A new toy has come out. The new PEEK-A WHO OWL manufactured by MerryMakers, Inc is soft, sweet and adorable, and it happened almost magically. There was no searching or seeking- the time was right and the right people were there. OWL is in the world and I hope love will follow. 
The first advanced copy of my new book "Once Upon A Memory" arrived with a sweet card from my editor, Connie Hsu. Prosecco just happened to be in the refrigerator. 
The book that began when I found an eagle feather on the beach is about to take flight. It already has a starred review in Kirkus, and a Winter Indie Next Pick for 2013-2014. This beautiful book launches on December 3rd, which is a very special day for me. Little, Brown & Company picked this date and they had no idea that it was my mom's birthday. She will be there in spirit. We will have a party that night at Secret Garden Bookstore in my Ballard neighborhood in Seattle at 7pm. Everyone is invited. (There is a rumor that the incredible illustrator, Renata Liwska, who made this book so heavenly and heartfelt visually- will be there!) Letting go and letting Renata take the reins has taken my life to a new level.
There has not been time for the long beach walks I love, but beauty has still found me.

Leaf color this year has been off the charts.
As the leaves dance away in the wind, nests are revealed.
We did not have a chance to go foraging this season, but my husband spotted this: the biggest porcini mushroom we have ever found (boletus edulis) in our city neighbor's yard. The cap is thirteen inches across. This monster was too old to harvest but there were "babies" nearby.
Three perfect porcini found me. I had already let go of looking for them and there they were. Lessons have been learned through these past few months: sometimes you have to stop telling yourself that you should keep seeking. Things that you are in alignment with will find you if you can only let go of the need to control. This has been such a blessing and it will be a lesson to keep practicing over and over.

The things that you are looking for will find you. 

You just have to let go, and look around.

Thank you for finding me here.

With Love,


All Sorts of E-nnouncements!

While I've been on book deadlines painting away with tiny brushes on real paper, things have been happening in the E-World. Things seem to change in a nanosecond out there in cyberspace, and frankly, I've been hiding under my Old School rock pretending that I wasn't going to put "E's" and "i's" in front of E-verything i-Do.

I know I should just surrender. Truthfully I can't imagine living my life without the internet as a valuable tool for so many things. I do love my laptop and my iPhone. My husband also bought me a Kindle Touch and an iPad Mini. The Mini doesn't have wireless, so I still have not found its ultimate purpose. I am not a gamer. I am not a television watcher. I don't walk and text at the same time. I love nature...

But I will confess that I spend too much time on Facebook. I have found it to be an amazing way to network with artists, writers, editors, librarians, teachers, parents, friends from my past and new friends. I have found great articles that my friends have shared. I have learned about events and I have helped out others in need. I've also slowly started promoting my own work there. Though I'll be published for twenty years next year, I have only been on Facebook for almost three years now with a "friends only" page. I also have a website that I have not updated in about six years. (I promise to do that soon!)

Things have changed. I have changed. I have many new book projects brewing, and some exciting E-announcements. So I'm jumping into the E-pool, and I hope I can swim with the currents!

First up: I now have a public page on Facebook: Nina Laden Books

Please LIKE me. Pretty please?
(I feel like Sally Field here.)
and you can keep up with all of the cool things going on with my books (and there is going to be a toy, soon, too, shhhhhh!)

I will also GIVE THINGS (like signed books) away from time to time.

And I'll post photos from events, news from the book world, illustration world, writing world...

But I won't post what I cooked for dinner.
I do that on my personal page.

I am planning on diving into the Tumblr soon, too. The jury is still out on Twitter. I'd rather be writing and drawing than tweeting at this point. If you can convince me of some good reasons to tweet, I may grow wings. We'll see. In the meantime, I have the real E-News to dish:

I have E-Books!

Yes. My books are starting to come out as E-Books.

For books that are out of print, this is a godsend. "ROMEOW & DROOLIET" has been in that state of limbo and it will be out in E-Book form mid-summer.

"READY, SET GO!" has been out of stock for a while. I never got the story why it wasn't reprinted, but the good news is that you can buy it NOW on all E-Book platforms. (or so I have been told- I don't own all of the devices...)

Here is the link to buy it on Kindle:

But the very E-xciting news is that "ROBERTO THE INSECT ARCHITECT" is not only available as an E-Book on Kindle...

It is on promotion from TODAY, JUNE 13th until JUNE 24th and you can get it for $1.99! That's almost free. It's definitely cheaper than a latte or a beer. I'm not all that tech-savvy, so I hope that link works. 

Just so you know, I'm never ever giving up on real books.
I love the smell, the feel, the intimacy of a book...

But I have embraced this new world of technology.
It saves trees.
It enables you to bring dozens, if not hundreds, of books with you on a trip.
It can make reading interactive, educational, and fun...
It's the future and we have to keep looking ahead.

I hope you will allow my books to come along on your electronic journeys- wherever they take you- inner space, outer space or cyber space...

With Love,


Being Your Own Mom

It's that painful time of the year again. The time when the constant bombardment of ads for flowers, jewelry, brunches, cheesy cards, keeps telling you over and over not to forget "Mom." Sometimes I just want to scream at whatever media is flashing their reminders that, "NO, I'll NEVER forget her. Ever." It's hard to watch others toting their moms around and celebrating them. I never really had that chance.

My mom died six days after I turned twenty-four. I was barely an adult. She was barely fifty-four and she had had a very difficult life, which turned for the worse when I was eleven and my father, her husband, ran off with my brother's first grade teacher. We lived at the poverty level for years, and if it weren't for her parents who paid our heating bills, our taxes, helped with food and clothing, we would most likely have been on the street. Things turned rotten when mom was diagnosed with cancer, multiple myeloma, right when I graduated from college in 1983 when I was twenty-one. Mom had no health insurance. I wish, so much more in retrospect, that I could have done something.

With Mother's Day approaching I think about my mother more than usual, even though usual is every day. I talk to a painting of her- one that I did above- from memory- and one that a painter friend did of her from life. I tell her what is going on and how much she would love some of the things, and how much she would hate the others. "The others" being the horror show that continues to play in my life, starring my estranged father who recently threw something that resembled an IED onto our porch.

But despite my mothers' failing health and her lack of material resources she tried so hard to bring beauty into my life. It was embarrassing to me at that age- twenty-two, when she would mail me books that she bought used for pennies and stuffed them with letters in which she'd ramble on and on.

Now I am so happy that I saved them. The books and the letters. They live inside whatever book she sent me, and when she died and I inherited all of her books- and there were hundreds... I would constantly find things stuffed in them: clippings from the New York Times with articles about whoever the subject of the book was, gallery invitations for a book about a certain artist, a stray list of errands, and letters.

It has been twenty-seven years since my mom died and in the past seven years I have had so much turmoil in my own life that I didn't think about those letters and what they said...

But today, after I went to visit my Mother-in-Law with my husband to treat her to a lunch of sushi rolls, ("What is this? It looks very interesting. How do you eat it?") I was needing to mother myself, so I pulled out the letter that my mom wrote to me and saw that the date was April 22, 1984.

It was this time of year. It was stuffed into the book of Whitman poetry twenty-nine years ago, and it resonated even more now.

This is what my mom, Frieda Savitz Laden wrote to me twenty-nine years ago when she sent me "Whitman:"

Thought you might enjoy this- the notes are not mine- it is a sample of his work- you already know-

I send you flowers- poems- & love- the sweetness- the beauty of life- and, all the eye can see- that is the fulfillment of living- to see- & to express it- & to become part of it- without doing- it is there- you do not have to "pick it"- "take it!"- "record it!"- it is there- it will always be there for you- as long as you are!- It is my gift to you- you wear it well, my beautiful daughter-

I never expected you- I have never expected anything- really in life- I did not anticipate who you would be- you are far more wondrous to me- then I could imagine- if I had imagined-

In time you will meet- what people can be- you have already- to a degree- in both directions-

You are magnificent- and I am fortunate- you couldn't be anyone else- never stop writing- a small poem will do- or, drawing- a small one will do- or, thinking- a small thought will do- but your's is yours- & no one can say it that way- it is your wonderment- the ugly- the cynic- will always draw the crowd- the ability to break down- to destroy appears to the many- to the big- to the popular- but the other grows in a corner- out of sight- small & very beautiful- all encompassing with the heart & mind!
The softness of a petal of a flower- you are! Happy spring!
Love, Mom

Mom was right. In so many ways. And I try to heed her words, her thoughts, her unconditional love. She isn't here anymore in a physical sense, but I do bring her with me wherever I go. I remember hearing people say how horrible it was to "become your mother." I know I can never be her- exactly her, but I can become the mom/woman/artist/friend she was- to me and to others. 

And that is a gift. 
So be your own mom.
To others and to yourself.
And share the beauty of who you are.

With Love,


It's Not A Woodcut: Inventing a Technique

Many times I am asked if I created the art for my book, "PEEK-A WHO?" with woodcuts. I did not. I love wood and linoleum and I've used those techniques in the past. I was also very into scratchboard at different stages in my life. When I came up with the idea for "PEEK-A WHO?" I did some art samples in gouache, but they just seemed ordinary and rather lifeless to me. I loved the vibration and edginess that wood, linocuts and scratchboard achieved, but they were problematic: I had a die-cut which needed an exact registration. Wood and lino can be very tricky to work with and I didn't want to have to cut over again if I screwed up. Scratchboard was not simple to add color to...

So completely by accident- or perhaps it wasn't an accident- I experimented with faking a woodcut style. To my delight and surprise it worked better than I expected. I loved painting this way. Even though the art and colors were bright and simple, the art had texture and movement. Was it a success? I'll say! "PEEK-A WHO?" came out in 2000. It has now sold almost a million copies. I know it's not only the technique I created- it is so much more... but as I'm in the middle of creating two more books like "PEEK-A WHO?" which will publish in Spring '14, I thought I'd share my technique here.

I truly believe that artists should share their discoveries. We all have our own styles, our own voices. Everyone brings their own individual DNA to whatever we do. So, in doing this, I'm not saying, "go copy me," I'm saying "if you want to play with this- go have fun, and take it in your own direction."

Of course I start with a sketch, an approved sketch if it is going in a book. I'm not going to show the sketch here. We have other fish... or frogs to fry.

In advance, I take my Arches hot press watercolor paper and I paint the live art area black. I use Holbein Acryla Gouache for my paint. It has characteristics of both gouache and acrylic.

Once the background is dry I transfer my drawing using white chalk. Plain old blackboard chalk on a sheet of tracing paper placed under the sketch which is properly lined up, of course.

I will always keep a folded sheet of tracing paper under my right hand as I work on my illustration so that I don't make a mess of things. That was a lesson I learned when I was working with charcoal and pastels.

Next, I choose my color palette, and using a very fine brush, I go in and outline where the color block areas will be, leaving a funky black outline in between the color. This is actually working both the positive and the negative space at the same time. My brain loves things like this.

I also fill in a few of the lighter colors as I go. I don't have a sink in my old city studio- I have to go outside and into the house in order to change my brush water- so I've learned to work from lighter to darker colors so that I don't corrupt my paint, but when I am working on color block areas, I change my paint water for each color.

My new studio (which I hope to move into in June) has a huge work sink. (some of my friends have dubbed it "the wet bar.")

This next step is small, but so necessary. I get a clean cup of water, and using a wide flat brush, I clean off all of the chalk residue on the whole piece.

Now I can see my outlines clearly.

Now the fun begins: I start filling in color areas, but using my brush strokes, I leave little "nick marks" that remain black. This gives the art a woodcut look and makes things look like they vibrate, or move.

I try to keep a nice balance of marks so that areas don't look too busy.

Then I start adding in the background, again, not concentrating the little marks in any one spot, but using areas around the frog in a more accentuated way as to give some action- especially around his arms where he is playing the banjo.

With the background in place, if you look closely you will see that the colors are not quite opaque enough. So now I paint everything over again! Yes. A second layer of the same colors.

It may seem tedious, but this is when I really get to choose which nick marks stay and which ones get covered over. At this point it is wise to have some excellent music playing on your music player so you can just get in the zone and paint.

It's looking better, but I'm still not done.

One last very important detail: I go back in with the original black paint and clean up every single black line to make them pop. (not the nick marks... don't worry- I don't repaint them.)

And here he is: a frog playing a banjo with a tadpole audience.

Very simple, but very fun.
I hope you enjoyed this!

With Love, 


Remembering Melvina

Melvina passed away, flew out of her wheelchair, grew eagle wings and soared on April Fool's Day. It was fitting that she chose that day in her fifty-eighth year to leave. She left behind a large and beautiful family, all wearing purple and black at her funeral. She left behind some of the most incredible beadwork, some of which I will share with you if you will bear with me, and she left me behind, the fool that I am, finally realizing that there are many sides to the stories that this beautiful and tortured Lummi-Tlingit woman told- and only some of them were true.

For the eleven years that I have lived on Lummi Island I became fascinated by the tiny First Nations woman in the wheelchair who rolled over to the ferry dock in all kinds of weather, pitching her beadwork and sad stories of bad health and woe while it stormed, froze, blew and roasted her. Her work was exquisite, though, and as an artist, I couldn't believe that she asked that little for what I knew took so much time to create, so I started buying her wares, listening to her tales, and we became friends of a sort. She reminded me so much of my artist mother who had died broke, with no health insurance, of cancer at age fifty-four. My mom didn't weigh eighty-six pounds like Melvina, but she did get tiny at the end.
The first two pairs of Melvina's beaded earrings I bought over a decade ago were these feathered pieces: drums with leather she had sewn, and the other pair had malachite beads in addition to the glass seed beads. But what Melvina was known for were her hummingbirds. Most of my friends on the island called her, "The Hummingbird Lady." Over the years I bought many pairs of her incredible hummingbirds. 
She would charge $25 or $30 for them in the beginning. They became harder for her to make as her health got worse, and she charged $40 for them later on. I told her she was a treasure and hoped that she was passing this skill on to other family members.
 She never really answered that question. She did say that she had a neurological disorder that came from a car accident and that she knew that soon she would lose the feeling in her hands and wouldn't be able to do this work anymore.

I felt bad for her and tried to help anyway I could. I drove over to her small, but comfortable duplex up the hill in the housing complex and brought her food and jewelry supplies a few times. I gave her strawberries from Mounts Strawberry stand on Slater Road. She loved strawberries. And I bought her jewelry and I commissioned pieces.

I asked her for rose earrings and she made them. She was so happy when I picked them up. She proudly told me that she had made them for another woman and that woman had worn them in Paris. Her roses were in Paris! It was like Melvina herself went to Paris. I have worn mine in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Mexico.

Many islanders own her pieces and wear them proudly. I'm sure others have commissioned Melvina to do work as I did. A lot of people worried about her sitting there in the bad weather, and so many of us thought that she was abandoned by her family. Melvina told stories of a family that didn't help her or care. She talked of a son who was an addict and stole from her. She had two sons, one very successful, and she never talked about him.

As I got to know her, or the person she wanted me to know, I started to tell her about my family and our big problems.

I bought her amazing beaded Christmas wreath earrings about five years back, around the time that we discovered that we had two sons addicted to opiates. Melvina and I commiserated. I understood what it felt like to have your own family steal things from you. As we struggled to figure out how to get our sons clean, our time on Lummi Island became the very small refuge in what became an epic storm. Melvina was always there, like a buoy marking the channel. Her pain always seemed greater, but she carried on.

I kept supporting her. Secretly wishing she would offer to teach me how to do this beadwork. I knew how to use a bead loom...

She made me a beaded dreamcatcher. I did not expect there to be a perfect beaded eagle in the center. Melvina told me that the white feathers were eagle downy feathers.

Then she told me she wanted to make me paddle earrings because I told her about how much I loved kayaking. She put lavender roses on the front of the paddles. The beads were so tiny and her work was unbelievably tight.

But it didn't stay that way. There were periods when I didn't see her at the ferry landing and worried about her. She told me that she needed heart surgery, but they didn't want to operate because she wasn't strong enough. At another point she told me that she needed her pain pills- her oxy, but the doctor on the reservation wouldn't give them to her. That should have been a red flag to me... but I didn't see it waving.
I saw that the red poinsettias she made for me were not as well-made as her past work. She made them on what looked like electric guitar strings, which was clever, though. Melvina was a creative scrapper and I liked that about her.

The past few years her work was just not so good and I knew it was a sign. We all did.

She made me Dream Catcher earrings- it was her idea to make them, but they didn't seem finished. I had wished that she had added her beaded feathers hanging from the bottom. Yet, they are still beautiful. Melvina's spirit was in them, and I always felt compelled to buy what she offered me because I knew she put her soul into the work.

One day I saw these very detailed tiny hoops on the cardboard sheet of earrings that she showed to each car in the ferry line.
How she did this intricate work and charged next to nothing for it disturbed me. I offered time and time again to take her jewelry to museum gift shops. I told her that I could get her two or three times what she was asking. She never said anything. She just smiled that tight-lipped pained smile.

When we'd talk I'd look her in the eyes and tell her that I loved her. Sometimes I'd hold her hand. She had my cell number and she'd call me when she finished a piece, and I'd drive over to the ferry, walk on, and meet her on the dock and then take the next ferry back.

Her hummingbirds truly were her best work. I kept telling her that she could make them as a necklace- with just one hummingbird in the middle. So she made me this necklace. I didn't imagine the hummingbird to be so big, but Melvina was excited. "I had some big beads," she said. "How did you get the wings to stay open?" I asked her. "Oh, I put some glue on them," she said, "you can't see it, it's clear."

It was clear that there were so many things I didn't see about her.

This past fall my husband's health was failing. I didn't see Melvina. I didn't see Lummi Island. I spent most of November, December, January and into February hunkered down, either in Swedish Hospital or in our city home, nursing Booth back to the world of the living after he almost died.

I thought about Melvina on the few trips to the island in the winter, but didn't see her out there on the dock.
On March 20th, I drove to the island, riding through a storm so intense and dark, it was almost apocalyptic. When I got to the ferry dock the sun was shining and Melvina was there. It was lunch time and I had about a 45 minute wait before the next ferry. I rolled down the window as Melvina rolled over to me. "I haven't seen you in so long," she said. "I know," I told her. "My husband almost died." We talked and talked. She told me that she had a stent put in her heart, but that she had fluid in the pericardial sac around it. I didn't have to ask how she was feeling, I could tell by the pain in her eyes and by the simple earrings on her board. This was all the work she could muster. She told me that she really needed money. I told her that I liked the red glass ones. "Ten dollars," she said. I counted out a pile of singles and handed her ten. I wanted to talk more, but the ferry was coming, and so was the storm. She rolled away and I had no idea that would be the last time I would ever see her.

The next week we had a funeral to attend for former governor Booth Gardner who was my husband's second cousin, so we didn't go to the island. Then there was Easter and work... and then I found out that Melvina had died through our island community web network. I cried for two days on and off. I wore her earrings. I put together a vase of spray roses and decorated the bottle with plastic beads and gold ribbon. I wrote a heartfelt letter to her family and we went to her funeral at the Wex liem Community Center on Friday.

Seeing the outpouring of love and grief at her simple, but beautiful service, and listening carefully, a very different picture of Melvina came to light. The stories that I heard at the ceremony were of a beloved mother who made delicious chop suey, who sat in her wheelchair waiting for her son to return home in his fishing boat, of the grandmother who took everyone in, who loved her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Almost every woman there wore a pair of her beaded earrings or a beaded barrette. Her ex-husband spoke, although he had laryngitis, he said that they had gotten close again near the end.

I learned in the program that she was known as "Mama Kim" to her family. She has five sisters. She used to fix fishing nets and she attended Bellingham Vo-Tech in the auto-mechanic program.

Islanders thought that her family didn't love her. They did. So much so. But from what I could see, as the tiny beads came together and wove themselves into the story of her life- lately what they were giving her was tough love. That meant no money. No cash. Melvina needed cash and she was not the type to beg. She was strong and she was talented. She sold her beadwork to get cash for her own addiction.

It all made sense, and it didn't. But it didn't matter. She was free from her pain now. I could see her flying over the Hales Passage- without her wheelchair- the one that so many of her family and friends in the reservation used to help push up the hill to her home. She never asked. She always counted on them to be there to help her and they did.

Having been through what I've been through with family members addicted I should have seen the signs. They were all there... Melvina wasn't telling the truth on the ferry line. She was telling stories, but we believed her. I don't believe those stories anymore, but I do believe that she is now free.

I'm grateful to have gotten to know something of her- I wish I had known the real Melvina, but I will cherish her beadwork and love it as I have loved her. She was not her addiction, and I know there was nothing that any of us could have done to help her. What I can do now is share her beautiful creations and wear them for the rest of my days...

...and as the Lummi Elder who spoke at the end of the service said, I'm going to"stay behind the hearse. Don't race Death."

With Love,