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.
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 kept supporting her. Secretly wishing she would offer to teach me how to do this beadwork. I knew how to use a bead loom...
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.
The past few years her work was just not so good and I knew it was a sign. We all did.
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.
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.
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.
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."