A few weeks ago, I wrote about authors Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas and their busy lives teaching, weaving, and writing. In that post, I mentioned that Lynda was teaching on Valentines day at Gauge Yarn shop in Austin,Texas. She sent us this wonderful follow-up story of time spent with one of her students during that class. With her permission, we’re sharing it here as a hopeful reminder of the power of love, new friendships, tradition, and the beautiful possibilities in rebuilding a life. This is a story we can all use right now. Thanks, Lynda!
Valentine’s Day may or may not be celebrated in Navajo homes. In my youth, my parents would buy a packaged item that had cards and small packets of candy hearts to be passed out to kids in my class, but nothing was exchanged at home. When I got married, my husband Belvin and I would make dinner reservations; In our early years, he would give me flowers and candy, and I would give him a card and candy. Now, it’s just another day and it’s okay if we both get a box of chocolate on February 15th because it’s half off and act like we celebrated Valentine’s Day.
This year, our Navajo Weaving class was scheduled to begin on Valentine’s day at Gauge, a yarn shop in Austin, Texas. When in Austin, please stop in and say hi to Erin and Melissa and you will be surrounded with the incredible fiber merchandise they carry—everyone needs more fiber! Austin is the adopted hometown of one of our students who arranged this class and, along with her husband, hosted us in her home.
Three years ago, Angel Bonner took our Navajo weaving class in Tucson, Arizona, at Grandma’s Spinning Wheel yarn shop where my sister Barbara and I have taught for over 10 years. Angel had been researching Navajo weaving classes and learned about our class. She, her husband Joe, and their dogs traveled to Arizona to cross off Angel’s bucket list dream of learning Navajo weaving before she turned 80 years old (she was 78 at the time). After the second day of class, I mentioned to Barbara that Angel seemed upset or despondent over her weaving progress. Barbara immediately went to Angel’s station and sat at her loom, each taking turns at weaving and they chatted all afternoon long. Angel finished her first rug project in class and was so delighted to show Joe her rug and tell him where it was going to go in their home. Angel returned to our class in Tucson three more times and traveled once to Denver for another class. She did admit that she was ready to quit weaving during that first class. She said, “You and Barbara were so kind and didn’t give up on me.” Barbara and I loved her determination to take on challenges with each class, and we all became friends with Angel and Joe.
They both had accents that I didn’t associate with Texas and I told my husband Belvin that Joe’s accent reminded me of that Louisiana Chef Justin Wilson. Right after we arrived at their home in Austin on February 13, Angel fussed over us and mentioned that since Valentine’s day was the next day, we could go off on our own to have our romantic dinner after class ended for the day. We told her that it wasn’t that important and we’d would love to hang out with them. In the years that we have known them, we have pieced together some of their story. They both grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, where both their families had lived for generations. They knew each other in grade school, middle school and high school. Joe is a retired Army Colonel and mechanical engineer and regaled us with his stories about living in other countries mainly in southeast Asia. Angel was a social worker and retired as a college grants administrator.
They moved to Austin 14 years ago after they lost three homes, Joe’s boat, motorcycle, truck, generations of family furniture, family photos, and countless other family treasures during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Angel was able to salvage her wrought iron bed and mirror that belonged to her mother and had to restore them. Joe’s collection of hand carved furniture that he had shipped home from Asia survived being submerged for six weeks under flood water. And that’s it, that’s all they were able to save.
After the first day of class, Angel said she was going to teach Belvin Creole Cooking. I sat back and drank a Dixie beer with Joe who told me story after story about his early life in the New Orleans area. How he re-met Angel during their 30-year high school reunion. Joe had never married, and Angel was now a divorced mother of two teenaged girls. They were both 49 at the time and married a short time later, much to the disappointment of Joe’s mother who stated that Angel isn’t Catholic, had no annulment and two daughters. The biggest disappointment was that she was not Italian. At 5-minute intervals, Angel would shout out a retraction of Joe’s story or note his lapse of memory while she was at the stove with crawfish, red beans, rice, gumbo, sausage, shrimp, and blue crabs, directing Belvin on when to add items and how much seasonings to put in.
During the fantastic dinner we laughed a lot about our common parental disappointments, our growing up stories and marveled on how their subsequent tragic event shaped them to go out and do new things and how it led to our friendship and love of Navajo weaving. After dinner Angel brought out a King cake and we gobbled it up and left no crumbs behind. Belvin and Angel discussed Creole recipes—she brought out a wicker basket and pulled out many recipes. Belvin would read a recipe, and if he wanted it, she would go into their home office and print copies. She talked about the many lost recipes of her grandmothers’ and her mother’s. Her daughter browses eBay for old, no-longer-in-print Creole recipes and buys them so Angel is rebuilding her recipe file. As she held up each recipe, she shared an associated memory; by that time, I couldn’t even see her anymore because of the tears welling up in my eyes. I could sense her hands lovingly pressing open some of the folded printed papers to tell Belvin about how she would tweak the recipes. Memories of my own mother’s hands holding her weaving comb when she was no longer able to weave flooded me with emotions.
In our book, Spider Woman’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today, we interviewed many Navajo elders, and we are familiar with their stories. We knew what to say to soothe their grief and wrote their important stories accurately without loss of language translations. Historical, generational, and even current tragic events are many, and Navajos are shaped by how our grandparents, parents deal with trauma. Families have fared better when art is part of everyday life. This has permeated throughout all my Navajo friends. My circle of friends has been small and centered around common interests, common cultural traditions, art, and language, but new friendships have been growing with each new adventure in our weaving expeditions. Even though we meet a lot of people from all over the globe, in our short weaving classes there isn’t enough time to really form lasting friendships unless the student keeps returning and wanting to learn more, not just about Navajo weaving, but about our culture and traditions.
Angel and Joe have always evacuated ahead of any storm, and it seemed like just another evacuation during Katrina. They threw some clothes into one suitcase, took their dogs, and got out of town only to be kept from returning to try to save family heirlooms. Three houses and their business were lost. They tried to rebuild but so many things happened that kept them from rebuilding. The city’s total infrastructure was destroyed. The last straw was the city’s intent on collecting future taxes on their lost business. I listened to Joe explain why he would never return to Louisiana, and it was heartbreaking, but Joe is also healing. It is showing in his collection of musical instruments, and how he listens to songs and duplicates the notes. Angel is still months away from her 80th birthday but she is weaving her 16th Navajo-style rug. Her latest rug is a single Saddle Blanket rug that will be placed above their fireplace. Displaced with little resources, they opened a map of the United States, picked a place, moved, and were overwhelmingly welcomed by the city of Austin, Texas.
Angel, Joe, Barbara, Belvin, and I may have grown up years apart, many states apart, culturally apart, but the love of family, the lost traditions, having to adapt to new situations, disappointing parents, our refuge in art, and our love of weaving have formed our friendships. Our lives, our stories, our trauma, our resiliency, our traditions, and our love for each other are woven together now and this memory will pop up for us on every Valentine’s Day.
—Lynda Teller Pete