Interwoven

Navajo corn people Yei rug. 78″x54″ Believed to be a first half of the 20th century weaving, made for personal use within a family, to be gifted or inherited and not for sale. Courtesy of the Kimball family. 

Cynthia W. Connell holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University. She served a full-time mission to the Navajo and Hopi Indians and upon her return was asked to serve as Native American, Polynesian and Hispanic Cultural Specialist and Trainer for Temple Square, LDS Church, Salt Lake City.  Her writings have appeared in newspapers, the Ensign magazine and in the Amazon International Best Selling Spectrum Parent’s Survival Guide:  Tips, Tricks and Strategies for Navigating Through Autism by Karen Pellet. This post appears on BCC in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

My Grandfather Weldon was a weaver. A weaving loom wasn’t what you might expect to find in a Brownstone apartment in The Bronx, but then neither was a Native American. The neighborhood that accepted his family was filled predominantly with Jewish and Italian immigrants.

My father was raised in a home with a weaving loom and a Steinway piano. I sometimes wonder whether my grandfather, as he moved his shuttle back and forth and listened to my grandmother play Chopin, felt the dichotomy of the two different worlds in his life: his own world of the Jim Crow infested foothills of the Appalachian mountains, and the world of my grandmother, born in Chicago, where her father worked for a prestigious law firm. She had wealth, education and opportunity, and he grew up facing the constant possibility of being lynched.

He was a quiet man who didn’t say much unless he had a story to tell. Sometimes, I think he planned what he wanted to say while he worked on his loom. “Yes, Sir. Thank You Sir.” to the millionaire robber baron living on Park Avenue who offered him a single shiny penny for installing the very first telephone in the palatial manor. Only the floor saw the anger and insult on his face as he bowed his head to signal that he knew his place.

Weldon told stories about who we were and who we weren’t. He wove stories about his past, and his time in a rodeo circus. Others tales were about his wife. Cautiously, his stories removed all memory of her former name and identity. In the pattern he was weaving, her color would be Brown, with no trace of her threads of Blackness. With his help, her passage into the image of the new world he created for her was so seamless, even her children did not know. The only evidence of her past life came when she sat down to play her piano.

We were Indians from New York City. As a kid, my father spoke Yiddish, Italian, Latin and Greek, but only my grandparents spoke a secret language that they refused to teach my father. They used it when they argued. My father was curious to know what the fighting was about and asked to be let in on the excitement. Weldon angrily responded, “The government will take you away if I teach you. They will send you to Boarding School.” My father, forever, remained ignorant during the excitement, but he said he could tell when they were swearing at each other. My grandfather could weave beautiful blankets and frightening monsters on the same loom, as his shuttle moved back and forth.

At the foot of my father’s bed was a heavy woven blanket with a Native American pattern. Under the bed was a monster called “Boarding School.” If he didn’t keep his room clean or behave himself when the nuns were teaching him at school, even in New York, the hideous “Boarding School” monster could find him, capture him and forever imprison him away from those he loved.

My grandmother died when my father was 13 years old. He was a young boy, left adrift in the hard years of the Great Depression. The friends of his childhood had their own sorrows. Some were the children of the Mafia, constantly looking behind themselves because they were targets for gang warfare.

The Jewish mothers watched over my father. The best day of the week was Friday when he would run back from school, his street filled with the sweet yeasty smells of challah. If she was looking out the window, a mother might call out, “John, come up and have a little challah, it’s warm and fresh out of the oven!” These women feed my father because years earlier, his mother had fed them. My grandfather always had work and a paycheck. Grandmother quietly set money aside from each weekly pay to buy ingredients for making soup. In the mornings, she would carry a big steaming pot of soup and put it out on the street. It was filled with her blessings, and she allowed her neighbors to take home what they needed. She fed her community, and in gratitude, when she was gone, the community fed her son.

As a young girl, I learned that there were other Indians just like our family. I learned about them as I watched reruns of Saturday morning cartoons of Dudley Do-Right or old movies on rainy Sunday afternoons. People like mine were put in Mel Brooks movies; Indians in feathered bonnets who all understood the joke spoken in Yiddish. What seemed fictional to other people was my reality.

After a suitable time, the ladies in the neighborhood decided that my grandfather had been alone long enough. There was a Chinese restaurant on the Avenue, and the wife of the owner knew a nice Jewish lady who had recently lost her Italian husband. This Chinese lady took on the role of matchmaker. The community looked out for its own.

Fighting for and with life bonded the people in my father’s neighborhood together. They all knew that, when they walked away from their street, the world was full of racism, anti-semitism, and hate for recent comers who might take too big a slice of the American Dream pie. My grandfather lived on the same street in The Bronx, in the same apartment, for over 30 years with his neighbors from China, Italy, and Eastern Europe–among people who went to temples, churches and synagogues. Through joy and loss they had become interwoven.

I once attended an honoring ceremony for a visiting Native American Elder. There were no trophies or plaques given to the guest, instead, the community had chosen to acknowledge his achievements through the giving of a wool blanket which they lovingly wrapped around his shoulders. After the conclusion of the ceremony, I turned to a friend who was more familiar with the tribe and asked, “Why is a blanket such a significant gift?”

After a long moment of silence she thoughtfully responded “In the past a blanket was a precious thing. Some members of the tribe raised the livestock; others hunted to provide food for those who were making it. Long hours were spent cleaning and carding wool. Each strand of fiber was twisted and dyed by hand”.

She paused, “ Giving a blanket was a way of protecting those you loved. A blanket represented the work and good wishes of the entire community.”

A few years later, it was my own father who was honored in such a loving way. In the final years of his life, my father hung a beautiful Native American blanket on the wall of his Seattle area living room. The local tribal community had honored him with the blanket in token of his service as a veteran. Some might have seen the blanket as a piece of art and praised its color, texture or abstract image. But they misunderstood. The blanket was a prayer. It’s images were alive with memories of sacred stories, frightful monsters, sweet smells of childhood and the whispered sounds of the weaver’s tool moving back and forth, accompanied by the music of Chopin.

Comments

  1. “The blanket was a prayer. It’s images were alive with memories of sacred stories, frightful monsters, sweet smells of childhood”
    This. I don’t have the whispered sounds of the weaver’s tool, nor the New York City history, but weaving my own stories makes meaning and purpose. Makes life.

  2. Nizhoni!

  3. Natalie Brown says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  4. So beautiful. Thank you for this. I love the imagery.
    Makes me think that we would be better neighbors, here in Happy Valley, if we had a little more strife and a little less prosperity.

  5. Lovely. My now deceased father always gave blankets as gifts. It gave him great joy to know he was protecting others from cold. He had been so cold in Germany as a young American soldier fighting to retake Europe from the Nazis. He did not want others to experience that. Same gift. Different meaning.

  6. This is beautiful; thank you so much for sharing. My grandmother was a weaver. She mostly made rugs from scraps of fabric. It feels terrible sometimes, to walk on her gifts, but weaving is for that, too–to soften and warm the cold and hard places of the world.

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