Longtime resident Lenora Burnside died June 1. She was 83. Her family provided the following.
She had a hand in raising all of us. Dubbed “Mom” by everyone in the family, many Jacksonites and folks across the nation, she made her mark in many hearts.
Lenora was born May 20, 1936, near Crystal, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation Reservation. Although her birth records show she was born in May, the family celebrated her birthday on Dec. 4, 1938. It wasn’t until she reached the age of Medicare eligibility that we discovered the error.
Birthed in a cabin with no running water or electricity, she didn’t have an easy childhood. Her given name was Bessie. She was 5 when her mother, Fannie Peshlakai, died suddenly. Lenora and her sister, Mary Rose, were largely raised by their grandmother. Lenora loved her grandma dearly and clung to her side to haul water, prepare meals and tend to the sheep.
Her stories paint a picture of her running through the mountains like a wild horse among the sagebrush. Much of her early childhood remains a mystery, but we do know that she was sent to a Catholic boarding school in St. Michaels, Arizona. The teachers and caretakers were strict; the students were reprimanded with corporal punishment. She decided to retire her name and renamed herself “Lenora” after seeing it in a comic book. Far from home and told to abandon her Navajo customs and beliefs, she faced many more difficult years.
Meeting her husband
She was next sent to the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. There she met her soon-to-be husband, Jim, who was developing his lifetime trade of welding. With his quiet demeanor he never confessed it, but if you look at pictures during their courtship it was clear he was head over heels in love with her. She was a beautiful, stylish girl and he a dark-haired handsome boy. The two were married in a Catholic Mass on April 14, 1956, in Brigham City.
Building a family in Jackson
Jim was called to work in Wyoming, and they relocated to Jackson Hole that same year. They remained in the valley ever since. The two gave birth to their first child, a son named Jimmy, in 1957, followed by a daughter, Jovern, in 1958. Lenora took pride in dressing the kids, always with clean lines, tucked-in shirts and flowing dresses. She became a master seamstress, designing and sewing a majority of the kids’ clothes. Photos during those years show them entertaining friends and taking road trips to the surrounding parks. They lived on modest means, but you always see the kids surrounded by toys.
In 1959 Jim and Leonora’s daughter Janice was born. At 17 months old Janice died from pneumonia. The couple buried her at the Elliott Cemetery in Wilson along with a deep sadness that we never fully knew. They did not speak of Janice often, but in recent years we learned more about the agony they felt in losing her. The birth of Phyllis in 1962 helped mend their heartache.
In the 1970s the three kids kept her busy. Phyllis would march around the house practicing her flute for the school band, Jovern developed her artistic talents, and Jimmy took up racing. Their best days were spent on the road traveling to Jimmy’s motocross races. Lenora would pack a picnic, usually including the family favorite: fry bread. As the kids grew up, married and had their own children, Lenora gave birth to one last child, daughter Affie, in 1978.
During that time Lenora took a job at Teton Laundry and cleaned motel rooms on the side. Many of us helped her make beds, fold towels and fit foam on wire hangers as we tagged alongside while she worked. But she never retired her role as mom. She remained caring for the grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their friends for the years to come. Offering rides after school, feeding the masses and helping dry tears, she taught each generation how to be headstrong and self-sufficient.
She started work at Quality Cleaners, where she spent the remainder of her work years. She loved to iron and encouraged her family to take pride in their appearance and appreciate their clothes. She worked quickly and efficiently, even after suffering an accident with a presser that crushed her hand, leaving her with a third-degree burn and a scar for the rest of her life.
A love of sewing and music
Over the years she further developed her talent for sewing. Jim bought her a Singer sewing machine when they married, and she put it to work. She made baby blankets for each family member and even people she barely knew. She loved making checkered quilts, stuffed animals and variety of clothing, making sure we looked our best. If it required a stitch, she did it with precision. If she didn’t know how, she figured it out, with or without a pattern.
Today the same sewing machine sits in the family dining room, which she used as her workshop. On a typical afternoon you could find her among piles of fabric at the table, working away while blasting music on the stereo.
To say she was a music lover would be putting it mildly. She played her vinyl 45s and welcomed the era of the CD. You could hear anything from Patsy Cline to Fleetwood Mac to Kid Rock from her stereo. There was nothing traditional about her music taste. If it had a beat she liked it. She attended many concerts well into her 70s.
Despite being a hard worker she always put her family first in her life. The extended family would gather for each birthday, holiday and anniversary. She embraced her children- and grandchildren-in-law like her own.
Although she maintained her Catholic faith over the years, sitting as close to the front as she could during Sunday Mass and ensuring we did the same, she also taught us her Navajo spirituality and customs. We all learned the severity of a coyote crossing your path and how to smudge your house with sage to get rid of bad spirits, among a number of other beliefs to abide by.
She had a boisterous laugh and remained young at heart throughout her life. For years the family joked that, because of her strong will, she would outlive us all. After a lifetime of raising kids, continuously keeping up with each generation, it is finally time for her to rest. Lenora started her life in the mountains among the sagebrush, and she was laid to rest the same. She was buried alongside her 17-month-old daughter, Janice, at Elliott Cemetery. She’s in heaven, no doubt, still caring for the children who passed too soon.
She is survived by her husband, Jim; son Jimmy (Theresa) Burnside; daughter Jovern Burnside; daughter Phyllis (Dave) Getz; daughter Affie (Dennis) Ellis; grandchildren Jennifer (Jordan Wathen) Burnside, Jason (Greer) Burnside, Jeff Burnside, Archer Ellis, Linden Ellis, Marlo Ellis and Sammie Getz; and great-grandchildren Kailie and Cavett Burnside.
She is preceded in death by daughter Janice.
The family would like to thank employees at St. John’s Medical Center for providing care for Lenora during the battle with her health.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in her honor to Climb Wyoming, a nonprofit organization providing job training to single mothers.