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Saddle Sore: Relishing family relics

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It is a particularly striking china cabinet, 100 years old — maybe older — a relic that has been in my family for all those years. A woodworker could tell you about the intricately wrapped oak uprights that hold the curved glass in place and the door that opens and swings with an elegant arc seldom found in later pieces. At over 6 feet tall, 5 feet wide, it’s a formidable addition to any room. The three glass shelves, 18 inches deep, are meticulously curved to match the symmetrically bowed front and weigh at least 30 pounds a piece, all arranged above a bottom shelf of wood, designed to be friendlier to delicate tea sets and other eggshell breakables.

The cabinet belonged to my grandmother Vagneur and held an important corner in the ranch house dining room, a thing of wonderment to a kid like me who thrived on the outdoors, the smell of horses and the bellowing of cattle. My grandmother died before I was born, brought down by liver cancer at 49 years old, and nobody talked about her much. But we kids all marveled at the china cabinet and its contents, a piece that was forever off-limits to my generation, even during family get-togethers such as Christmas.

When my grandfather died, my dad and his sisters did like most families, I reckon, and divvied up those possessions not covered in the will. What went where, I’m not entirely certain anymore, but the china cabinet went to my dad. And so to me, it’s been almost like an appendage, perhaps vestigial, but vitally important nonetheless. I never host afternoon teas or need fine silver on the table, so the cabinet is, for all intents and purposes, a display case.

In any event, the china cabinet has recently been moved, and as part of that procedure all the contents had to be removed and securely and individually wrapped to prevent damage. Before putting any of the items back, it has been my procedure to carefully wash each article, examining it for damage or significance, as far as I can remember. It’s a simple thing, washing china, but it has turned into a personal journey, one that has piqued my memory and imagination.

There is a plate issued by the Lewis H. Tomkins Hardware Co. with the 12 months of 1928 arranged around the outside circumference. Clearly, commerce and marketing were alive and well back in those years that some like to paint as “almost a ghost town.” When I was in high school, my dad would sometimes send me up to Tomkins Hardware to pick up a case of dynamite for use in spring ditch cleaning. Imagine that today.

If you read old issues of The Aspen Times, there might be mention of get-togethers held at my grandmother’s Woody Creek house, visitations of high import, for that was the custom of the day. I also have her dining table, so it is fun to visualize the soiree, all beautiful, young women, dressed to the nines, sitting around the table, sipping tea out of the very sets residing in the china cabinet. I wonder about the many topics of conversation they must have covered and how exciting it undoubtedly was for them. It’s not a stretch to imagine that most arrived via horse and buggy, as we have photos to suggest the reality.

There is one piece, a small, oblong, curvilinear gold box with a solid and heavy lid, held up by four intricate legs that is out of keeping with the rest of the items, for it belonged to my maternal great-aunt, Mary Stapleton. Mary was forever known as Aunt Wee, the oldest woman of her Stapleton generation, born in Leadville in the winter of 1880 and brought to Aspen in the summer of the same year by my great-grandfather, Timothy C. Stapleton.

That gold box was Aunt Wee’s most prized possession, her “jewelry box,” as she referred to it. It was lined with red silk, and sometimes, when she wanted to give you something very important, she would ask you to bring her the jewelry box into which she had already embedded whatever it was she wanted you to have. It might have been a dime or a small newspaper clipping, but its giving was significant to her.

The most important things in that jewelry box were Aunt Wee’s rosary beads, and although I never knew how they worked, Aunt Wee could not go to sleep without taking them out of the box and saying her rosary. That gold box is one of my treasured possessions.

And so it is in life, sometimes in the midst of a crowded field of importance, like the inside of the china cabinet, a small piece catches our eye and brings back the strongest memory.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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