Stories with Strangers: Part One

Today I met an incredibly interesting woman (at a reenactment festival no less). She was selling silver jewelry that she had made herself, all remakes of actual pieces found from the era the festival was celebrating. I visited many vendors throughout the day, but this lady immediately grabbed my attention. She had her jewelry in cases on half of her table and her work space on the other side.

At first she just smiled at me (and, being polite, I smiled back) and I looked at this basic silver medallion necklaces she had displayed, each with a single symbol on it. She told me that each of the symbols are connected to an Indian story but that she only tells the story to those who buy them. Things started getting interesting though when she began telling me about her little work space.

“See these?” she asked, pointed at a small collection of half finished medallions. “My favorite part of these events are when people stop and actually talk with me. Most start off just watching me intently while I’m working on some of these. Then some of them start asking questions about what I’m doing. A couple times today people have stayed interested long enough that eventually I just hand over the press. It’s amazing what someone can do when they take the time to learn something.”

Picking up one of the half finished medallions, I said “Do you have a lot of people interested in how you make these things?”

“Actually, working these events is what gives me hope about people. Forty years ago I learned how to make these things the same way they do when they ask about what I’m doing,” she said.

I asked her how she learned to make jewelry.She seemed surprised that I asked.

“Do you really want to know?” she asked, her eyebrows up in surprise. I told her that I am an English major in college and one of my favorite things is hearing other people’s stories. With a smile, she started in on her tale. As it turns out, she is from Arizona and when she graduated college with a degree in education, she was placed in a school on an Indian reservation teaching skills that third graders should know to the kids on the reservation. Her neighbor at the time was a silversmith and she was entranced with the pieces he was making. The man let her observe for a few days and she asked as many questions as she could think of. Then one day he told her that she just needed to go make them herself and figure the rest out on her own.

From that point on she started making pieces and selling them to those on the reservation. She said that eventually she became one of the people to go to for silver and turquoise jewelry because normally other natives would produce pieces when the produced pieces: never necessarily on a time schedule. She, on the other hand, had what she called the “white people touch” and got things done as needed and whenever they needed something from her.

She made a bolo tie for the chief and  a wrist cuff for the funeral of a boy who had been killed on the reservation and every day pieces for whoever wanted them.

This woman had continued teaching in a couple different areas for the next ten or eleven years before she just got burnt out on it.

“That’s what they don’t tell you in school,” she said, “they never teach you how to take care of yourself so you can continue to do the things you love.”

She quit education and went back to school for computer programming, all the while traveling around and learning new silver smithing techniques.

“I will tell you that this was all by choice though,” she said. “I made the choice to not have a husband or kids or any of that. I followed what I loved. I saw things that some other people would never believe. But it’s a choice and not necessarily an easy one.”

Along with her choice to not have a traditional family, she also just learned to follow her passion and at one point that passion was making ferret jewelry.

(Yes, that one stopped me up short too.)

Her booth was called “Dancing Weasel” and apparently that is the Indian name she gave herself. She is the proud “mom” to six ferrets which she also makes jewelry for. Everything she was telling me just made me want to stop looking around the festival for the rest of the day and just hang out with this woman to hear her tell stories.

When she had told most of her story about her jewelry making, she gave me permission (I think jokingly, but she was too cool not to actually write about), to tell her story.

“You can embellish it all you want,” she said, the creases by her eyes accentuated by her smile, “There’s no way to tell if anyone would believe it anyway.”

The real kicker came when she told me that she had cut off a mans head before.

Now, before you think she is some sort of murderer or crazy person, let me explain.

Apparently at some point she had gotten a position as an anatomy lab instructor and they had a lab with several human cadavers to work with. When they were “finished” their study with them she was told that the local hospital had to take care of the remains and the cremation and all that came with it. Because it was her first time in this position, she asked around and found out the the hospital would send a container for the remains and then someone would come pick it up when she was ready.

She told me she though, okay great that seems easy enough.

Wrong. When the box came, it was only a little longer than two pieces of paper placed end to end and the body? Well, it was larger than that.

“I had a really hard time with it. To be honest I wasn’t sure that I could do it,” she said.

When I pressed for what happened next, she said with a laugh, “Well, I just did it.”

“It took me a while, but once I saw it just as flesh and bones and recognized that the human soul and what made it a person was gone, I was able to see past what I had to do,” she said.

Now, this may seem like an incredible story and like something that couldn’t have actually happened, but I’m not creative enough to make this up.

Before I left her booth she took my hand in hers and told me it was a delight to talk to me and that I should never stop asking questions.

We finished making our rounds at the festival and before we left I felt like I just needed to buy one of her pieces to remember this day with. When I got back to her booth, the first thing she said was that it was my turn to tell her a story now.

I told her about how this year I was finally able to leave the US for the first time and visit Europe studying WWII. What was interesting about this part of our conversation was that she kept asking things like “How did being there make you feel?” and “What changed in you when you saw that?”. Everything she asked just made me realize that we all should be more like her, more inquisitive and curious. More open to new things and to really going for what we are interested in.

I’m not sure if any of you would even care about this encounter, but speaking to hear was the highlight of my day. She was the perfect example of how we are all works in progress and I hope that I can be at least half as interesting as she is one day.

(I also purchased a hand made ring from her while I was there. I like the ring but I love the story that comes with it more.)


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