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Weaving Memory Transcript

A note about this transcript: The Moth is true stories told live. We provide transcripts to make all of our stories keyword searchable and accessible to the hearing impaired, but highly recommend listening to the audio to hear the full breadth of the story. This transcript was computer-generated and subsequently corrected through The Moth StoryScribe.

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When I was little, I grew up on the Navajo reservation. My parents were educators, they taught Head Start and because they both were working, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They lived in a very rural area. These were my mom's parents. We would be out in the middle of nowhere. There were dirt roads and this is a time period when some people had cars, but a lot of people still had wagons and horses and that's how they got around.

I remember waking up early in the morning and hearing my grandfather pumping the kerosene lamps to get them started because there was no electricity. And I would smell bacon and eggs. And my grandmother would be making tortillas and potatoes for us to eat. My grandfather would be getting ready to go take the sheep out.

And I remember just thinking this is a really beautiful time. We would have breakfast together. This cold air would come in in the morning and we would be just being with each other. My grandfather would go out to the corral and I would then help my grandmother mix milk for the lambs and we would mix up this milk and put them in these large containers of Coke and Seven Up and put the nipples on and go out to the corral and feed the lambs.

I also remember part of my job was to siphon out the water because we didn't have running water. And I would take that hose and siphon out water for the dogs. Our dog dish was a tire that my grandfather cut in half and we'd put the food in there. All the dogs would come running and they always had really weird names. I was trying to remember some of the names like Mop Bucket and Daisy, Boots, What's Your Name. Those were really their names! It was really strange, but they'd all come and eat out of this trough.

And after that, then we would go inside and into the one room where we all slept. There was a bed where my grandma and grandpa slept. It was a queen bed and we would fix that. And then my uncle’s bed was off to the side, it was a twin bed. The rest of us slept on mattresses and cushions on the floor. So we would get all those cushions together and fold them up and put them against the wall to get the space cleaned up. And this room that we slept in all together was then transformed into my grandmother's studio.

She was a traditional Navajo Weaver and we would get that space ready. There were two windows on either side of the room, and the light would be coming in in the morning, and in between the two windows was her loom. And I remember we used to sew these flour sacks together to make these white sheets that would go over the loom and the rug to keep it clean. And then we would lay out the cushions in front of the loom for my grandmother, and a sheepskin for me to sit with her, because my job was to be with her and be her companion and help her. She would be carding wool or spinning. 

And there were times when she would make the yarn into these balls. And part of my job was to sit there with my hands out and she would wrap the yarn around my hands and you know you get tired as a kid and I would just bend over and lay on my back and transfer the yarn over to my feet. I'd be laying on my back and I'd be like touching her skirt and just smelling my grandmother.

Often people would ask me, “What reminds you of your grandmother?”

And I said, “You know, it's Bengay.” I'd smell that because she was always saying she ached and she would wear that and every time I smelled it I would think of her.

And so I would be with her and she would be talking with me, and as my feet were in the air she would pat my feet and say beautiful things to me and just encourage me to be a good person.

One day we were driving off the reservation. It was like an hour to get to town from home, and when we get there, I remember being really little and all the adults were talking in the car dealership. I looked over and they were unraveling and rolling out this rug across the hood of the truck. And my grandmother was there talking with the car dealer man and, you know, they're going on and I was just, you know - you're supposed to be good and sit there.

So, later we were driving back home in a brand new truck. I remember my grandpa leaning towards me and saying, “See how important her weaving is?” She supported us in many ways and it was really beautiful.

As I started to get older I started getting into art-making and I loved making art. And I started making prints in high school, got into printmaking in undergraduate school and this question would always come up from people because they'd say, “You're an artist.”

And I say, “Yes.” They say, “You’re Navajo.” And I'd say, “Yes.” They'd say, “So, you must be a traditional Navajo weaver.” And I'd say, “No.” “You must make jewelry.” “No.” And they'd look at what I make and sometimes people would be disappointed that I wasn't carrying on this tradition. At one point I asked my grandmother, “What do you think of what I'm doing and what I'm making? Sometimes I think I should be weaving like you.”

And my grandmother said, “I didn't grow up going to school or learning English.” And she's speaking in Navajo and she says, “but the way I see it, you're weaving thoughts and ideas and these designs in a different way. Something I can't do. And in that way, I see you as a traditional weaver.”

It was really amazing to hear that from my grandmother and it gave me strength to move forward with what I do. I moved forward in my life, making art and thinking about and remembering this strength she gave me.

As I moved forward in my life, I kept going through this questioning. I was teaching at different universities and I ended up coming to this university here in Boulder. I remember there was always this question of should I be here, or should I really be back home? My parents are educators. They've given up everything to be there. Should I be there, too? And this weight of, “Where should I be? What should I be doing?” was always inside me.

My grandmother has since passed and I was asked to help with a project at the University, at the Natural History Museum. It turns out our Natural History Museum on campus has one of the largest Navajo rug collections in the U.S. I helped with this project, and all the time I was looking in the database for Thelma Baldwin, looking for her rugs, and nothing would come up.

So the exhibit comes and I called my parents and my uncle and tell them, “You should come to Boulder and see this exhibit that I helped put together. It's really beautiful and there are some rugs from where our people are from. And you should come see them.”

So my parents came, and I was really excited, and we were coming into this room with all of these rugs on the walls and on platforms and my mom got really quiet. I started to point, but before I even showed her she said, “That's my mom's rug. That is your grandmother's rug.”

I stopped. I looked at it. I said, “Mom, how do you know?”

And she says, “Because I was carrying you; I was pregnant with you when she was weaving that rug.”

We walk up to the rug and look at the label and the label says Mrs. Tom Baldwin because during that time women were known by their husbands’ names. All my life I was told to be a strong Navajo woman and always keep my name. It was amazing to find her rugs there. And then my uncle found some other rugs that belonged to her. And then off to the side I see my dad getting a little emotional and I said, “Dad, are you ok? What's wrong?”

And he said, “This is my mom's rug.”

And we were just amazed because my dad's mom didn't weave a lot of rugs. We look at the label by her rug and it says Anonymous. We call the people at the museum and tell them the story and they're saying, “We're so glad that you could share this.” 

And then I told myself this is where I'm supposed to be. They're here and I'm here. Thank you.