Her walls are decorated with framed work after framed work. Look closely, and you’ll see that, instead of paintings, they’re cross-stitch works.
The home of Nanka Caraway in Gulfport is filled with examples of her handiwork. In addition to stitched replications of famous paintings, there’s a traditional Bulgarian tablecloth and a delicate, almost weightless coverlet made with a technique similar to crochet.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Caraway is from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She has several reminders of her homeland, too, such as a handmade example of the national dress from a village near her hometown, dolls and other collectibles. In fact, the fabric she uses for her cross stitch is unlike the Aida cloth with which many of us are familiar. Marked with a grid of pale yellow squares, it is available in Bulgaria, and Caraway orders it from there. Her pattern books also come from Bulgaria; the legend for each pattern includes DMC color numbers so she can get her thread locally.
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In Bulgaria, she was a midwife. When she came to the United States, she worked cleaning houses. For about 45 years, Bulgaria was a communist country, and it was under communism that she grew up.
“I was born in 1943, and in 1944, communism came to my country,” she said. “I’m a child of communism. People in the United States don’t know how it was there.”
Her father had been an officer in the royal military. With the coming of communism, the royal military was no more. He and other professionals became factory workers, and the communist regime was strict about that. No private work could be done at home. In fact, one night her father was working in their basement on a part for a coal stove. A neighbor overheard the hammering and contacted authorities.
“My family was a strong family,” she said. “I arrived in this country for a better life.”
Coming to America
Communism ended in Bulgaria in 1989, and in June 1999, she arrived in the United States.
She eventually came to the Mississippi Coast because one of her two daughters, both of whom were in the States, had moved to the area. While in Gulfport, she became a U.S. citizen.
She also overhead talk about a dance at the Long Beach Yacht Club. She decided to go, just to have an evening of fun.
“At the yacht club I met my husband,” she said. “He was the best thing in my life.”
Falling in love
She and Bill Caraway, a Gulfport native, were instantly smitten with each other. In 2004, they planned to get married, then in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Coast, including Bill’s childhood home on Second Street. Nanka and Bill had evacuated to Vicksburg ahead of the monster storm.
“We were 25 days in the shelter,” she said. While there, the subject of marriage came up. “‘Want to get married?’” she asked Bill. “Let’s go!”
They found a shirt at Wal-Mart for him, but her options were coming up short. She had a dress, but it was in her daughter’s car, and the daughter had driven to Gulfport two days after Katrina.
Then she remembered something.
“We had no money, no dress, what was I to do? On the second floor of the building in Vicksburg, people had given clothes, so many clothes. I went up there to look. I found a jacket, a blouse.”
She went downstairs. “I say, ‘OK, Bill, I’m ready!’” she said, beaming.
They got their blood tests, then arranged to be married at a local Methodist church. As for the rings, a friend they’d made at the shelter went to a local jewelry store and recounted the couple’s story. The store donated rings for them. An area hotel also chipped in and gave them a room for their honeymoon night and breakfast the next morning.
“We went in the room like two gypsy children,” she said with a giggle. The hotel, it turned out, had given them a night in the honeymoon suite, complete with champagne, a Jacuzzi in the bathroom and rose petals strewn around the rooms.
The Caraways returned to Gulfport. They already knew the house was gone. They lived in a FEMA travel trailer for two years, and Bill, a large man, would go to the Donal Snyder Community Center to take a shower, avoiding the cramped shower in the trailer, while Nanka and a friend would walk for exercise there.
For about 10 years, she and Bill had a happy life. They rebuilt on the property where Bill’s childhood home had been.
“Two years ago, Bill died,” she said. “I was angry to the whole world. It was not good for me. I stayed home, and I watched Bulgarian TV by the internet. I started working on the sewing, like a puzzle. I would get fabric from my country. I had to have something to do all the time.”
Now, Caraway is getting out more and making more friends.
“I’m being around people more,” she said.
But the cross stitching is still something she enjoys.
“It keeps me busy,” she said with a smile.