Interruption of memory
January 11, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoYou could tell she was a tall woman, just from the way she sat in her wheelchair, back straight with knees jutting out a little past what might appear to be comfortable. I was very pleased to see her at a family soiree last fall, but as I reservedly offered my hand rather than a hug, she eyed my name-tag with suspicion and wondered aloud why she didn’t know me. My surname and her maiden name were the same, she said, and asked if perhaps I was related to her father, Ben Vagneur (my granddad), or at least knew him, and the question caught me off guard.We can’t know for certain when people leave us, and I’ve never been that close to it, but somewhere along our intricate paths, the thread of a lifetime breaks and we can no longer communicate with a loved one. It’s easy to categorize the problem as “Alzheimer’s” or “too old to remember,” or whatever else we might come up with, but throwing words at such a complex problem fails us when we need to understand the most.My dad’s sister, Bernice, was born in the Aspen Citizen’s Hospital in 1927 and grew up on the family ranch in Woody Creek. My first horse, Stardust, was the same steed she rode to the Woody Creek schoolhouse every day when she was a kid, but as Bernice succinctly pointed out in “Aspen, The Quiet Years,” we never really “owned” our riding horses. They were ranch property, assigned to us.Maybe it was the horses, but more likely it was that we both were outspoken, had a sometimes unusual view of the world and generally seemed to be able to find common ground on divergent issues that made us close in a special way.Perhaps that’s why she called me one day, saying she couldn’t remember where she’d parked her car. I didn’t think too much about it, but she was genuinely scared so I walked her slowly through the available options until she finally said, “Oh yes, I remember, now!”She was a big woman with a big heart and a laugh to match. She could see behind the stage, look past wrinkle-causing events, and many times, sitting through a serious discussion, her hand would all at once go to her mouth with an exclamation of, “Oh, my God,” and then a roar of laughter (or rush of tears) as she explained the epiphany that had just passed through her vision. Not everyone took this in a humorous fashion, but then, not everyone got it, either.A long time ago, she took me into her confidence, showing me an old, abandoned, hand-hewn log cabin she wanted to restore. “I’ll buy it, move it to your place and we’ll fix it up,” she’d said. Of course, the ol’ boy that owned the cabin wouldn’t cooperate, so our plan didn’t pan out. But can’t you imagine that if Aunt Bernice had, through the blending of reality and a great metaphor, through a stretch of the imagination almost too great to comprehend – and while those with the easy answers sat dumbfounded – gotten hold of that rickety cabin, perhaps she’d have fixed the lengthening synapses in her brain just as surely as she repaired the cabin?And so it was that later, as I sat down beside her and as she once again questioned me, I told her I knew her father well. Her eyes lit up with a burning curiosity and for a brief time, we had a most pleasant conversation. It was our last.Tony Vagneur wonders where the people sometimes go. Read him here every Saturday and send comments to email@example.com.