By Alexe van Beuren
At nearly ninety-two years of age, Eddie Nelson has a great deal to tell me about his life; it’s hard to sum up over nine decades, especially when he can tell me stories about a Mississippi childhood, a career as an engineer, and serving in World War II– not to mention the museum-worthy Native Amrtican artifacts that he collected during his career in Arizona.
But as we sit across from each other, the story that the clear-eyed and smiling Eddie Nelson tells me has only one constant thread: his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth passed away in 2003, but after nearly sixty years of marriage and a lifetime of adventures, Eddie Nelson’s biography can’t be told without her.
Nelson grew up primarily in Kosciusko, but came to Water Valley after graduating high school to work with the Corps of Engineers on the Lake Enid project. Every day, after work, Nelson and his coworkers would stop at Turnage’s drugstore for a Coca-Cola.
“I met Elizabeth [Turnage] then,” Nelson tells me.
When Nelson joined the Air Force in June of 1941, the couple kept in touch. “I got lonesome,” Nelson says, glasses shining, “so I asked her to marry me.”
The two married June 20, 1943. When Nelson left the service in November of 1945, the couple lived in Water Valley and attended Ole Miss together. Eddie graduated with a degree in engineering, while Elizabeth– already college-educated– earned a master’s degree in business administration.
And then their adventures began.
After living in Como for a year, the young couple moved to Arizona in July of 1950.
“Arizona?” I ask. “Why?”
Nelson chuckles. “We had been there in the winter time,” he says. “We were tired of the cold weather.”
Two years later, the couple returned to Kosciusko, Mississippi, where Nelson worked as an engineer for Attala County and their daughter, Frances, was born. After a mere year in the Magnolia State, the Nelsons moved back to Phoenix, where they bought a home and settled down– for the most part (in 1966, they moved to Seattle, Washington for a year).
In 1967, Nelson began working as an engineer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he built and maintained roads on the 700,000-plus acres of the Pima reservation.
It was during this time that the other great passion of his life began: Native American crafts.
Nelson rises and leads me upstairs to view his collection. We begin with the pottery; “this was made by my friend,” he says over and over again, saying the names of Indian women as he shows me their handiwork.
“The makers– the women– are all gone now,” Nelson says with some sadness, and then he picks up a black-and-gray glazed piece, telling me that the unique coloring came about from a drunk husband who accidentally discovered a new technique. “His wife made a fortune out of it,” Nelson smiles.
We move onto the kachina dolls, the baskets, and the old stone hatchets, clubs, and cooking implements. Nelson tells me where each piece came from; some he bought, but a great deal of it– including the oldest pieces– were given to him by friends on the reservation.
“The Tarahumar Indians invented soccer,” Nelson says, stopping to pick up a ball whittled out of wood. He hands it to me; it’s incredibly light. “They’d bet their wives, children– anything. They didn’t have any money.”
Nelson shows me Navajo rugs– “they sold by the pound during the Depression”– and alligators whittled from rubber. Since rubber doesn’t grow in Arizona, Nelson has to explain that he didn’t stop collecting artifacts after he retired in 1979. Instead, he and Elizabeth began traveling in earnest; the rubber alligator, along with a carved miniature canoe, came from a trip that he and Elizabeth took down the Amazon.
So how did this collection of Native American artifacts end up in Water Valley?
“I never thought I’d live in Mississippi again, but Elizabeth wanted to come back, and I didn’t blame her,” Nelson says cheerfully. “She had roots here.”
So in 1996, after nearly twenty years of traveling together during retirement, Eddie and Elizabeth Nelson returned to the very house she had grown up in, and Eddie set up his collection on the second floor.
Elizabeth passed away in 2003. Now, Nelson spends his days reading, driving himself to the senior center for lunch, and attending First Methodist Church. “I come up here sometimes and just sit,” Nelson says, gesturing to the chair pulled up next to his collection. “I look at it all, and I wish I could go back.”