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,