Aspen Times Weekly
From the 1950s well into the 1960s, many widows called Aspen “home.” Some were born in Aspen; all spent most of their lives there. Some had married miners; their men worked the mines from their teenage years only to succumb to hard labor and its inherent diseases at relatively young ages. Others, like my grandmother and great aunt, had been widowed in 1918 when influenza infiltrated Colorado. Young men were the primary victims of that pandemic. Aspen’s widows were a constant in my childhood, as neighbors, family and relations of friends.
The first time that I dined at the restaurant Lulu Wilson, I was surprised to learn that the widowed neighbor of my childhood owned a first name. In 1950s politeness, I had known her solely as Mrs. Wilson. The restaurant’s biographical sketch interests patrons, but seems impersonal to those who knew her. When I was very young, Mrs. Wilson’s cookies satisfied my sweet tooth. Years later, I repaid the favor by shoveling her walkways.
On the alley side of her Hopkins Avenue home, a shed and outdated outhouse separated her back yard from the alley, typical of Aspen Victorian houses. Firewood was stacked along the shed walls and a chopping block fashioned from a large log was nearby. Mrs. Wilson chopped her own kindling for her wood cooking stove, the only source of heat. Short in stature but active throughout her life, Mrs. Wilson split wood as part of a daily routine that included sweeping the public sidewalk in front of her home.
Mrs. Wilson was “Aunt Sue” to my childhood friends Barney and Gary Bishop. She was their great aunt and took care of them when their parents went out of town. Barney remembers her as “a gentle person,” and enjoyed going to her house. He also remembers her Victorian sofa, “hard as a rock,” typical of furnishings in Aspen’s older homes. The cachet of Aspen’s Victorian homes today bears little resemblance to the period’s small, dark dwellings furnished with items that predated the 1920s. In winter, a resident’s distance from the sole heating source dictated his or her baseline comfort.
Barney recalls Mrs. Wilson stating that she was not afraid of dying because everyone she had ever seen dead had a smile on their face. As happens today, most Aspen women outlived their husbands. Many also lost children through childbirth and childhood diseases. Fatalism was a common coping philosophy.
My cousin spent two summers living next door to Mrs. Wilson while she worked as a waitress at the Epicure. Mrs. Wilson always seemed to know how late she had returned home after a night spent partying. Early the following morning, as my cousin passed Mrs. Wilson rocking in her porch chair, she would be chastised: “Did you have a good time last night?”
Mrs. Wilson’s close friend, the widow Mrs. Reed, lived across the street in a yellow brick Victorian. Mrs. Reed was not fond of children. Her body language said, “Don’t bother me.” I entered her house no more than a couple times while she lived there. I do remember her standing watch as a street sentinel; she did not often sit, once the sun warmed the street side of her house.
Mrs. Reed’s above-average height appeared even taller when she stood erect, supported by a single crutch. Although wood and aluminum crutches for skiers were ubiquitous in Aspen at that time, Mrs. Reed’s crutch consisted of one wooden dowel topped by an upturned, uncushioned wood curve that fit under her arm.
Like many women of their time, the two widows did not own or drive cars. Living on the edge of Aspen’s business core, they walked one to three blocks for basic needs: post office, pharmacy and hardware store. Beck and Bishop grocery store delivered from half a block away in the Wheeler Opera House. If they had to travel beyond their considerable walking capabilities, friends chauffeured them.
Even in old age they lived alone, fended for themselves, survived on marginal incomes and banded together with other widows for companionship. Whether independent by constitution or as a result of years of widowhood, Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Reed modeled the dignity of independent senior living.