April 25, 2005 When Elizabeth "LelLel" Aubain was 11 years old, she had a run-in with a nun at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School, supervised by the Sisters of Charity.
Aubain recalls, "She made me so mad. I said, 'You're not a Sister of Charity, you're a Sister of vanity,' and that was that. I was kicked out."
And that special spunk that set her apart was never going to go away. The petite Aubain, barely five feet tall, and weighing in at about 95 pounds, looks like she might fit in your back pocket. But it would take more than a back pocket to contain her prodigious spirit.
Propped against the wall on the bed in the bedroom-workroom of her tiny 135-year-old house where she was born 76 years ago, Aubain talks easily about herself. The bed is covered with baskets of ribbon, sheaves of palm straw and a CD collection, mostly Westerns including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and even Elvis. "I can't work without a little music," she says.
The fanciful little coin purses, bracelets, rings and place mats are Aubain's signature. "See this straw," she says, picking up a thin strand. "This is called silk straw. If you turn it over, one side is shiny. That's the side I use."
She says it takes about two days to make the little purses, which are impeccable, lined with matching cotton in a calico, checked or perhaps a floral pattern.
As she pulls out yarn from a place mat, she explains, shaking her head, "The place mats take a whole day, and I misspelled Bon Appetite on this one." She doesn't take much truck in mistakes.
Aubain has been a vital part of Frenchtown for many years. She can be seen most any hour of the day walking the village's streets, visiting friends, and her hands are never still. She weaves the ribbons as she walks, never missing a beat. It's second nature.
The only place where Aubain puts her handiwork on display is the annual Folklife Festival on St. John. "I've gone there for years," she says. "I like to do that, but otherwise I sell my things on my own, no middleman."
Aubain has more than one passion. She dances. She is a Friday night regular at Betsy's Bar. "She hears Smalls scratch band, the Pop Tarts or Dick Solberg, the mountain fiddler, whoever is playing, and she is there," Betsy Sheean says. "Everybody loves to dance with her, she's our premier dancer."
"Oh, yes, I love to go down and dance," Aubain says. Her house sits on a hill nearby Betsy's. "The young people who come in like the coin purses and the little straw rings," Aubain says. "I tell them they're diamonds."
Aubain is arguably the best dancer in Frenchtown. She dances her way through all the village's festivities Bastille Day, Father's Day, the Christmas Tree lighting. She is the first one out on the floor, by herself, if need be.
But Aubain's life has been more than a carefree dance.
She had an invalid son to care for, she lost a breast to cancer in 1981, her kitchen burned in 1986 and Hurricane Marilyn took the roof off her house in 1989. Like many Frenchtown houses, Aubain's kitchen was built as a separate structure in case of fire. It had to be built back from scratch.
After her abrupt departure from Sts Peter and Pauls school, Aubain went to Washington School until the sixth grade, which was as high as it went. She then began working a series of jobs, starting out caring for children on nearby Hassel Island. Her parents, Isabel and Medrick Quetel, had moved to St. Thomas from St. Barths, and they all lived in the little house. Her father, like most in Frenchtown, was a fisherman.
One October day in 1952, John Aubain, just out of military service, came into the Oriental Bazaar on Main Street where Aubain was working. "He told me he was going to marry me. I didn't like him coming in and teasing me."
However, Aubain persevered. "We went out for two weeks and got engaged," she says. "We got married on Jan. 2, 1953 and moved to New York all in one day. We had a nine-hour flight on one of those awful old Pan Am planes."
After five years in New York, Aubain was homesick. She didn't want to raise kids in New York. She moved back to St. Thomas, and John stayed in New York.
She had six children John Theodore, known around Frenchtown as "Bones," Theresa Noreen, Alberto, Dominic and Michael, who died of a heart attack when he was 11.
Still reflecting the sadness, Aubain says, "Michael was born with a heart condition. He couldn't walk by himself. I had to take care of him. I sent him to school. I would carry him and then carry his wheelchair (it weighed 80 pounds) down the stairs every morning."
Aubain, who barely weighed over 80 pounds herself, would carry Michael down the 41 steps to the road for the school bus every morning, and then go back to get Michael's 80-pound wheelchair.
Michael was enrolled in special education classes at the Peace Corps School until one afternoon when he returned from school, and Aubain knew something was wrong. "I saw something on his back and he was complaining. I looked and somebody had played tic-tac-toe on his back with a cigarette or a mosquito coil!"
Aubain went to court with the case, and when she didn't get satisfaction, she took Michael to see Gov. Juan Luis. "They said he couldn't see me, so I said, 'you're not getting rid of me. I will sit here until he sees me.'"
And she did. "When I showed him what they had done, he couldn't believe his eyes. He fired the teachers and he fired the school bus driver."
Aubain took Michael to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. when he was an infant. "He was there 15 weeks, and I wouldn't leave his bedside," she says. "I had to do something, so I started weaving again, this time with ribbon. I had learned to weave with straw when I was a child, but I didn't have any straw. I would practice every day and show the nurses how to do it."
And those 15 weeks of practice gave her the skill that has sustained her ever since.
Aubain returned with Michael to St. Thomas, but he was not destined to live a long life. "The doctors told me he would never live past 15 years," she says.
"My husband would come down about every five years or so, but I raised the kids," she notes. Then, when things were becoming easier the children were raised and on their own in 1981, Aubain was diagnosed with breast cancer. And, once again, her spirit prevailed.
"I never took any treatment, and I'm fine to this day," she says, with a certain amount of satisfaction. "Dr. Mac (Dr. Sylvester Mc Donald) wanted me to have treatment, chemotherapy or radiation, and I said 'no'. I told him, 'it's the treatment that is killing everyone. Dr. Mac said, 'you're determined,' and I told him 'it aint going to kill me'. I'm here for a reason, and I'm not dying now. If you're good, the good Lord will take care of you."
Well, the "good Lord," or his financial department, subsequently smiled on Aubain twice "I won the lottery in 1986, $26,000. I was in bed and something came to me one night. I'd gotten some lottery tickets, but I needed more. I called the lottery lady, and said, 'hold five tickets for me. I'll be right down.'"
And her blessing didn't stop there. She won $125,000 later. "There's nothing left now,'" she says without a trace of regret. "I used the $25,000 to rebuild the kitchen. Then I used the $125,000 to bring the whole family down for John's funeral in 1997. He had moved back to St. Thomas in the 70s. "Money aint no damn problem," she says. " I won it and I gave it out."
But, that's not to say she doesn&#
39;t have other regrets.
We have now moved to sit outside on the steps among the few chickens and the flowering plants. The yard is immaculate. Aubain does miss the old days when almost every day there was a dance. "When I was growing up," she says, "I'd be upstairs above the Normandie at the dance hall there. That's where I went to my first dance when I was 18."
"Then, there was the Bamboushay nightclub and the Sundowner. They're gone now. So is the Normandie. It looks like a jail now. My brother Hank Quetel used to play there Hank and the Twilights. Those were good times."
However, Aubain still manages to have "good times." In 2004, she came in second in the Mrs. Senior V. I. contest. "I had fun. I did my little skit with a goose (an iron)," she says. And she was the belle of the 2004 Frenchtown tree-lighting ceremony, where she performed the tree-lighting honors, and followed with a performance of her winning skit.
And how about the nickname, LelLel?
"My sister named me. I think it's after Lily. She said I was always playing with the Easter Lilies. She told me I play with them 'too much.'"
Still, at work on the place mat, Aubain goes back inside to her miniscule living-room. "See this, it's all my family," she points to a tiny corner table brimming over with photographs. "It's not really a table; it's a box and I put a piece of plywood on it."
"These are my grandchildren and great grandchildren," she says with pride. "My daughter Noreen is in Oklahoma. They want me to move up there, but I can't," she says, "This is my home."
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