Patricia Naomi - August Cover Story
By: Nicole LaCour
Paul’s, Pookie, and God (Not Necessarily in that Order)
When I walked into the stylish, contemporary kitchen of Patricia Naomi’s home, she was stirring something in a pot on her stove. She welcomed me and offered me a beverage like a perfect southern host and said, “I can’t figure out for the life of me why you’re here,” and let out a full, joyous laugh that immediately put me at ease and made me want to know everything about the woman in front of me.
I was happy that we met in her home as my eyes darted from one local artist’s work to another. There’s a Francis Pavy, there’s one of Don LeBlanc’s and a David Alfa among many others. And there were rabbits everywhere. As I was jealously admiring Patty’s full, thick curly hair, I noticed she had a rabbit pendant at her neck as well. “So what’s with all the rabbits?” I asked. When she was a little girl, Patty and her best friend Carol Vermilion were on the second floor of the Heymann Department store when a little rabbit statue caught her eye. “It turned into a thing. People started giving me rabbits, so now I have a collection.” The one at her neck is attached to a circle pin that was her mother’s.
Patty Naomi wasn’t sure she fit the mold of what she considered an inspiring woman. “I give parties and have people over. I’m very silly,” she claimed. “My sister is the one on all the boards. She should be on the [FACE] cover,” she laughed. And her sister Nancy’s response to that was, “Oh, no. Of course it should be Patty. She’s so outgoing and vivacious. She’s the powerhouse behind Paul’s Jewelry.”
The truth is Patty Naomi has led a rather remarkable life. Fortunate and even privileged, some might say, she is the grandchild of immigrants who fulfilled the promise of the American dream in downtown Lafayette. Fiercely independent, Patty is a bit like the Gloria Steinem of southern belles, enjoying a “fabulous” single life until she was 47 when she met her “Pookie,” the only man she ever considered marrying. She might be the last person to tell you that she is a breast cancer survivor, a feat she describes as a mere bump in the road. And perhaps most remarkable, Patty is one of a rare breed of people who is always growing, always changing, never static in how she defines herself. And what she describes as her life’s biggest challenge might surprise even her closest friends.
Patty remembers being seven years old watching her mom stir oatmeal at the stove one morning. Her dad, Paul Jacob Naomi stepped into the room wearing a dark navy suit. His white shirt was perfectly starched. His black, wavy hair, combed back and a three-karat diamond accented his red tie. Patty looked over at her mom and looked at her dad on his way to the jewelry store and thought, “I want to do what he does!”
Today, along with her sister Nancy, her brother Paul Jacob Jr. (PJ) and the newest addition, PJ’s son Paul Jacob III, (Jacob), Patty does exactly what her father did. She and her siblings grew up in the family shop. Everyone had to work at the jewelry store. So as young adults, all three went off to explore other options. “We all swore we would never, ever work in that jewelry store. And one by one, we all came back to it.” PJ was the first to return to help and learn from his parents. With a master’s degree in English Education, Patty taught high school for six years until she “fled back to the family business.” Nancy eventually joined the others and “as the last person back, she has to do all the bookkeeping and accounting,” according to Patty.
By their own accounts the trio balance each other as they work together to run the business their parents built. PJ is the president, Patty is the energetic, youngest with eclectic taste in jewelry and Nancy keeps the books straight and balances Patty with her more traditional taste. “Is it difficult working with your siblings?” I asked Patty. “No, It’s the most wonderful thing, ever,” she said, followed by the big, happy laugh she shares with her sister. They manage the tough decisions by “taking turns backing down.” And they respect each other’s strongly held opinions. “We believe in each other. We believe in God and we believe in Lafayette,” Nancy summarized.
PJ’s son Jacob brings a new, fresh perspective to the store, reminding Patty of her father with his passion and attention to detail. “I wish my parents could’ve lived to see Jacob come to the store,” Patty said. “He surprised me. He loves what he does. Sometimes it’s like my father is there. He loves diamonds, just like my father did.”
I asked Patty, “What is it about diamonds that is so appealing?”
“Oh, the mystery, the beauty....It’s a symbol of love, of eternity. It’s what you give someone you love the most. And it’s sparkly and fabulous,” her laugh punctuating the last declaration. Engagements have always been her favorite part about working in the jewelry store. She remembered when she was a kid and a couple might pay one dollar a week for wedding rings, if that’s all they could afford. “It’s always an honor to be part of something so personal. Whether it’s just him and he wants to surprise her or they’re together, it’s an issue of trust. I think people want to be face to face when they make that choice. And it’s fun.”
As a buyer for Paul’s, Patty brings her own style to the store’s collection. “I like unusual jewelry, things that are strange and different…unique. When you put a piece of jewelry on it says something about you. I like that jewelry can make you feel fabulous or that a perfect accessory can bring an outfit to life.”
“I never had a vision of myself walking down the aisle in a big, poufy, white dress,” Patty explains about her decades of singlehood. “I hate white. I would never wear it and I don’t do poufy. The only thing poufy is my hair.”
Patty knew at an early age that she wanted to control her destiny. To do what she wanted, when she wanted and how she wanted to. “It goes back to looking at my dad and thinking, ‘I want to be in business.’ I dated a lot. I had fun. I was in love a couple of times but I never met anyone that I looked at and thought, ‘I want you for the rest of my life.’” Patty traveled with friends and cherished her free-spirited independence, giving parties, working hard and playing hard. Patty remembered going out with her girl friends and they all seemed to be looking for a man. “What are you going to do with that once you find him,” she teased them. And then she met Steve Smith. “From the first time we went out, I was with someone that I could be completely myself around and whose company I enjoyed. It was a wonderful thing.” But Steve wanted to be married, and he wanted to be married to Patty. It was a deal breaker, he told her. Patty had always thought marriage might diminish her but with Steve she found a partnership that, far from diminished her, it expanded her identity and brought new blessings and joy to her life.
In lieu of any poufy white dress, Steve and Patty held an engagement party and once their friends and loved ones were around them, Judge Kaliste Saloom appeared and married them on the spot. As for the nickname Pookie? That started out as a joke. Patty and Steve were mocking another couple who cooed at each other and called each other silly pet names in public. To make fun of them, they began calling each other “Pookie,” and it stuck. Now, when the invitations go out to one of their ubiquitous parties, it says, “From the Pookies.”
One of the best things about marrying Steve, Patty said is the addition of his daughter, Jessie and her two children, Sophie and Piper to her life. Like everything else, Patty embraced the role of step-mother with full force. “I was blessed from the beginning to have her in my life,” Jessie Melancon said. Not only was Jessie accepted fully into the Naomi family, but Patty also brought Jessie’s parents together, providing the positive energy to unite the family, encouraging everyone to celebrate holidays and birthdays together. “She always has a smile on her face,” Jessie said. “She’s the one to call if you need positive inspiration. ‘It’ll be fine. Everything is going to be ok,’ is what she always says…..and of course, ‘fabulous.’”
About 7 years ago, Patty, who had skipped her annual mammogram, “an incredibly stupid thing to do,” was diagnosed with a small, stage one, cancerous tumor. “It was the size of a really beautiful, south sea pearl,” she said, again with that laugh that reaches your heart every time you hear it. “It was the oddest thing being told I have cancer. I’m a happy person. I have sunshine and rainbows around me. What the heck is this?” Patty remembered thinking. Patty endured chemotherapy and managed to keep working and maintain her lifestyle. “I was lucky,” she said. “It was an inconvenience. A bump in the road,” she claimed. “I want to urge women: If you’re thinking of skipping, don’t. Or if someone orders a mammogram, do it! It will save your life and save you from a worse diagnosis.”
What was more difficult was watching her Pookie in the chemotherapy chair. Steve was diagnosed with leukemia last year and is now in recovery with a good prognosis. “Going through something like that really tests your relationship,” she said. “It made us stronger.
Her south sea, pearl-sized tumor, however has not been her greatest challenge. Today, she is embracing a new presence in her life. Patty was raised Catholic but in her early teens found herself distanced from her religion. “I felt like I was a nice person and that was good enough,” she said. One day Steve’s nephew Spencer asked his uncle, “Do you and Aunt Patty go to church?” Steve told him they did not. Spencer invited them to come to his church and they attended a service. “The first 30 minutes was singing,” Patty remembered. “I was so moved by the pastor’s sermon.” He challenged Patty’s long held idea that she should be the center of her life. He planted the idea in her head, that perhaps there is a higher purpose and introduced her to the concept of a “Christ-centered life.”
“I’ve always been about me, me, me and to have to step back is difficult. It’s so much easier not to have rules,” she said with a laugh. I asked Patty what having a “Christ-centered life” meant to her. “It means approaching people with kindness and love in your heart,” she answered. “And doing it in a very conscious and genuine way to everyone you meet.” What’s admirable about this part of Patty’s life is that she is struggling with it. That it is the biggest challenge in her life. She is not a blind convert or shallow follower. She is finding her faith through struggle, education and fellowship. “I’m on my first reading of the Bible,” she said. “It’s difficult but a joyful thing. I’m an infant, a newbie.”
At that first church service, Patty and Steve witnessed the baptism of a young man. Patty watched the pastor guide the man into the water and she told Steve, “I will never do that. My hair will get wet, and my mascara will run. There is no way I’m ever going to do that.” A year and half later she did exactly that, with excitement and joy.
A partner in one of Lafayette’s cornerstone businesses, a woman of endless generosity who gives her time, her cooking, her hosting, her love and her contagious laugh freely, a fiercely independent woman who did not follow the path most taken but created her own unique life, a grateful survivor, a woman of unique taste and boundless joy….Patricia Naomi is a woman to be inspired by.
“So have you figured out why I’m on the cover?” she asked me. “Yes,” I told her. “It’s because you’re fabulous.”
Paul Jacob Naomi
Patty Naomi’s grandfather Paul Jacob Naomi immigrated to Louisiana from Lebanon, joining a strong Lebanese community in Lafayette. Once he had enough money, he brought his wife and son John from Lebanon and grew the family to eight children. John went on to open a jewelry store downtown called Naomi’s and Paul Jacob Jr. worked with him. When Paul returned from his service in WWII, his uncle John had married and Paul decided to open his own store. So, he opened Paul’s Jewelry next to his friends, the Abdalla’s, on Jefferson Street.
The business flourished. “Daddy was a natural born merchant,” Patty said. “He loved people. He loved nice things.” Patty has fond memories of catching beads on a ladder just outside the store at Mardi Gras. The three siblings were required to work in the store and they absorbed their parents’ skills, learning how to buy and sell jewelry. Patty remembered as a child sitting next to her mother and father when they bought and observed what they were looking for… “Something of great value. A beautiful piece that they could sell.”
“Life’s too short to wear cheap jewelry,” Patty laughed. “You gotta go for it and have some really nice pieces that you’re proud of.”
Patty loved working with her parents. “You get to know them in a completely different way,” she said. And her parents allowed their children to learn the business. “They were very wise in the way they let us take over,” Patty said. “They let us bungle things and make mistakes because that’s how you learn. It was a hard thing to do.” Paul Jacob passed away 10 years ago and their mother, Theresa passed away just four years ago. “We miss them,” Patty said, “They held us up. When we lost our father, we lost a friend and a business partner. I miss the sound of his voice.”
Both Patty and Nancy see their father in Jacob, who is already bringing his son Paul Jacob IV into the store. “Jacob is detail oriented and always thinking about the business,” Nancy said. And when he calls his Aunt Patty after hours, worried about some detail, she might answer, “Jacob, I’m having a drink with my husband. Settle down. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
“We’re all getting old,” Patty joked, but when she thinks about the future of Paul’s, she is confident as she watches the next generation put as much love and care into the store as her parents did.