PROVO — Two women crossed the boundaries of culture, communication and distance to become and remain best friends for years.
Mary Ward and Elsie Shea are the bookends in this story. Both women are somewhere in their seventies. Both are mothers and grandmothers, too. And that’s about where their similarities end and their differences begin. The differences are so pronounced that it’s not stretching things to say that they inhabit worlds apart.
Ward lives in Provo in comfortable surroundings. She is a former emergency room nurse and married to a retired Brigham Young University faculty member. She would be the first to acknowledge that she’s been blessed in many ways.
Shea lives in the Big Mountain community on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, a land of gullies, washes, mesas and mountains. Most of her life, she’s lived in a traditional hogan. Until recently, she had no electricity and no running water. There is little in the way of modern conveniences for her; Shea drives 35 miles to pick up her mail. At times, having enough food has been a struggle.
Ward speaks no Navajo. Shea speaks no English. Ward is trim, energetic and confident. Shea is stout, deliberate and shy.
Yet the friendship thrives, and it all began with a rug.
About 25 years ago, Ward spotted an ad for a Navajo rug show in Park City, Utah.
I write to her and talk to her as a dear friend, even though something probably gets lost in the translation. Some people would say that we can’t communicate. But we do.
“I’d always wanted a traditional Navajo rug. I love their weavings. This was a chance to buy a rug and meet the person who wove it. How cool is that?” Ward said.
The show was sponsored by an organization called “Adopt-a-Native-Elder,” or ANE. ANE’s mission is simple. Its purpose is to deliver food, clothing, home health care products and other items twice a year to help elders in need, while respecting the traditional Navajo lifestyle. ANE’s 2,500 members help about 525 elders.
At the show, Ward bought her rug, and ANE got two new members. Impressed by the organization and its respectful approach to the Navajos, she and husband Dave signed up as ANE sponsors.
A few weeks later, Ward was linked with Shea. They met in 1995 when Mary was making her first food run.
“She invited me into her little home. She had a rug on the loom and showed it to me. I let her know that when it was finished, I’d like to buy it,” Ward said.
That’s where the remarkable friendship took root. Ward said she still has the rug.
“I was struck at how young she was,” Ward said of the first meeting. “I expected someone much older. We’ve grown older together. She has a beautiful smile, and when we met, she reached her hands out to me and embraced me. She took both of my hands in her hands and leaned forward and put her head on my shoulder. It’s still the way we greet each other.”
Since then, Ward has participated in more than 20 food runs. ANE works in an understated way, avoiding the spotlight, which would be contrary to the ways of the Navajo elders. The relationship between ANE and those it serves is built on respect. ANE members recognize they’re on the reservation as guests. The food runs are exhausting, lasting a week or so. About all that ANE food runners have to show for their work are dirty hands and sore backs — along with a deep satisfaction that they’ve helped people in need.
“We just see that the boxes get delivered. We’re not activists in any way,” says Ward, who is quick to credit other ANE sponsors with “going a second mile beyond what I do.”
The Navajo elder population is aging. Mary speaks of seeing 70-year-old daughters taking care of their 100-year-old mothers, all of them living in a hogan without running water.
“For some people, the boxes are their main sources of food,” Ward said.
The food boxes weigh about 35 pounds each. They contain just the basics -- salt, coffee, Spam, Vienna sausages, peanut butter, oatmeal, and other staples. Each box costs ANE about $100.
“The gratitude expressed for the food boxes is nothing short of remarkable. There’s just something about the Navajo people that speaks to my heart,” Ward said.
And among the Navajos, no one speaks louder to Ward than Shea, even though they don’t share a common language.
“All these years and we’ve never had a meaningful conversation,” Ward says, smiling. “I mutter ‘thank you’ in Navajo.”
When direct communication is needed between the two friends, one of Shea’s grandchildren steps in to translate.
“She is a beautiful person. I can see that without speaking a word of Navajo. I write to her and talk to her as a dear friend, even though something probably gets lost in the translation. Some people would say that we can’t communicate,” Ward said. “But we do.”
The time Ward and Shea spend with each other is dwindling. Ward isn’t able to make as many food runs as she once did. When she isn’t there, Shea worries about her and lets Ward know, through a letter written by a grandchild, that she misses her and is praying for her.
“Elsie worships in the way of a traditional Navajo elder,” Ward said. “I can envision her praying for us early in the morning, spreading corn pollen and the traditional herbs on our behalf. There is a beautiful simplicity and elegance to their lives.”
On the occasions when the two friends are together, they make the most of every minute. Sometimes, that means just quietly sitting by each other outdoors, holding hands, taking in the splendors of a rugged land, and feeling, as Mary puts it, a calmness that is difficult to find in a fast-paced, overbooked and complicated society.
At those moments, “I whisper to her, ‘Elsie, I love you.’ She whispers back something in Navajo, which I don’t understand, but I think I know the meaning,” Ward said.
For these two extraordinary friends, sometimes no translation is needed.
Donald S. Smurthwaite lives in Meridian, Idaho. He's written eight novels, the latest, "Road to Bountiful," published by Covenant. He likes to bake, sort of likes to run, and now that he's retired, he's trying to perfect the art of taking a nap.