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Strong memories of the strongest woman

Tony Vagneur
Aspen, CO Colorado

Like most kids, the outdoors was my playground, and as I wrestled toy cars and trucks along winding dirt roads made by my own hand, the sound of music would slowly catch my ear, enticing me up the front steps. Three-quarter time on an old upright piano pounded down the bass while a beautiful, unmistakable and strong soprano voice carried the melody out the open window, through the porch rafters and into the yard, finally disappearing behind the lilacs and cottonwoods along a small irrigation ditch.

She could hold me endlessly with her music, but like a young and energetic filly, was reluctant to let me too close. If my interest was too keen, the singing would stop and she’d disappear into another part of the house, to “do the housework.”

“Oh, of course I remember her, a unique woman,” people will say, if her name comes up in conversation. She had her causes and her ambitions and she worked tirelessly to accomplish those things she thought important to the community.

We went to the music tent at least once a week in the summer and every Sunday listened to the music students sing in the Aspen Community Church choir. Maybe music was our elixir, for in the summer, we had great times together. Her aspirations for me to become a polished musician were dashed by my paternal grandfather who, in a larger than life image of the old west that even John Wayne could not project, purposefully instilled in me a ranching heritage that I cannot break, not even today.

Her health began to fail while she was still in her 30s, compounded myopically by the western slope’s main medical facility, run by a pack of nuns who refused to allow hysterectomies, no matter how serious the need. Maybe it was naivete that kept her from going to Denver, or maybe just a young woman’s faith, not yet corrupted, that people always had your best interests at heart. For weeks, maybe months, she would be gone, not once but several times, bedridden in a far away hospital, trying to recover from the butchery that posed as modern medical science.

Such absences, perhaps, were the catalyst that began our slow drift away from each other, but on deeper reflection, the seeds of estrangement were already there. She still kept me in piano lessons, with an attempt at strictness, but never again would I hear her playing on those lazy summer afternoons, and the brilliant timbre of her voice had descended to a delicate hum, when it appeared at all. The music tent and church disappeared from our rounds.

In her early 50s, maybe it was the loss of her youngest child, coupled with the death of her husband soon after, that brought her down, but it was ugly any way you wish to fathom it. Sometimes, unkind words are said in an attempt to gain sympathy for one’s own predicament, and such accidents of human nature, no matter how well understood, rend wounds that never seem to repair themselves and leave once-staid accomplices as strangers in a continuing, life-long relationship.

Somewhere in my mind, I had visions of us repairing the rift, although I knew it would be impossible. Death waits not, and while I procrastinated, she faced the shrouded reaper in a lonely Denver hospital room. I missed seeing her by mere hours, but would it have made a difference? Upon my sister’s beckoning call, I cried myself to Denver, nonstop. Were the tears because of someone dear I had lost, or more likely, did I weep for the woman who, even in her own setting sun, didn’t want to go, for there glimmered still a hope for fleeting contentment, no matter how brief.

A lifetime of challenging circumstances couldn’t break her heart completely, but in the end, she must have realized the fragility of what was left.


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