The footprints of ancestors
August 4, 2006
Perhaps you’re not a lifer like me, but maybe you’ve lived here so long you’ve lost all contact with wherever you came from, or maybe would just like to forget that place far away. But if idle conversation means anything, most people around here still have a soft spot from whence they came. Maybe it’s Chillicothe, Ohio, or Chicago, Illinois, or someplace in Florida. As people reminisce about this or that far-off place, wherever it may be, they have, in my mind, access to a world that I can never visit, a history somewhere else that can never be mine, a home that I can never return to. Which, all things considered, is a shortcoming that I’ll gladly accept, but it does create interesting scenarios in my world when I find nostalgia in places I don’t expect, places outside of Aspen or Woody Creek.Cruising the river district of Glenwood Springs the other day, after picking up a pair of boots at the repair shop under the bridge, a sudden desire to reconnoiter the train station came over me, and within a few strides, was slowly descending the stairs, breathing in the nostalgia of a time when I was a little boy of five years old, holding on to my maternal grandmother’s hand and thrilled to be taking a trip on the Vista Dome, the passenger flagship of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway. Grandma’s youngest daughter, Marion, lived near Salt Lake City, in Provo, and it was the first of several trips we took that way over the next few years, just for a visit. Marion and my mother, Kathleen, had graduated from Basalt High School and it has always been unclear to me how a nice local girl could end up living way out in Utah, not even a Mormon, but I certainly enjoyed the trips to visit her. Trains have been in my blood ever since.When I was growing up, it was common knowledge around our house that my mother had been born in Salida, Colorado. How could that be, when everyone seemed to have always lived on the Stapleton airport ranch, made so infamous lately by Lada Vrany’s myopic mistrust of Pitkin County? Apparently, Grandma Nellie’s husband, Bates, had taken a powder, or couldn’t find work, or some such thing, and in dire need of a job (and being very independent), Grandma had ended up in Salida, teaching school. She was full-on pregnant with my mom (October birth) and even under the best of circumstances, it couldn’t have been a very pleasant time for her, wondering how her marriage was going to survive and how it all would affect her firstborn.Not that many years ago, I visited Salida for the first time, and walking the old part of town, tried to picture my grandmother making the rounds after school or on weekends, negotiating narrow doorways and climbing steep stairs, hoping she would make it around the corner or through the archway. She’d never been to Salida before and her list of supportive friends had to have been very short.People always talked out of both sides of their mouths about my maternal grandfather Bates, saying on the one side he was a drunk, and on the other he could have been the President of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant seemed to prove that one could be both. (Whatever the situation, the marriage worked in some fashion, as my mother’s sister was born the next year, in Aspen). My archives contain old letters grandpa wrote in later years to my mother, clearly a very lonely man, earning his keep on the wind-swept plains around Livingston, Montana, missing his family and wishing somehow, he’d done it differently. “Maybe I’ll be home this Christmas,” he’d frequently say.Shortly after I was born, Grandpa Bates Sloss died near Aspen, still working on making a marriage with my grandmother Nellie. It was their home, and it’s mine, for all the good and all the rest.Tony Vagneur usually keeps his cards a little closer to his vest. Read him here on Saturdays and send mail to email@example.com.
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