The old women of the West End
Aspen CO, Colorado
It might have been an enticing sight, a hundred head of cows rolling east on Bleeker Street, past the Community Church and around the Jerome up to Main, but to the old, single women who lived along the route, it was more like a nightmare. Those poor ladies would be out in the yard, wielding brooms, sticks and rocks, doing their level best to protect the immaculate yards and flower gardens that lined Bleeker, but six or seven hours on the trail from Woody Creek leaves a cow thirsty, hungry and a little deranged. Unlike the sheep who politely glided through town each spring and fall, our herd of cows left an unmistakable path of mayhem and consternation. Those gardens took a beating, my granddad and father took a cussing, and we never went the same way twice.
It was a little heartbreaking, I always thought, because these women tended their lawns and flowers with a fastidiousness that bordered on psychological. The landscapes always recovered, of course, and to those of us who were privy to such creations of the female hand, the Taj Mahal didn’t have anything on them. Every bloom, every green stem, every nuance in the curve of a garden’s edge was the result of feminine creativity, and those yards of the ’50s and early ’60s were something to be proud of.
The grounds and gardens were one thing to witness, but on the other hand, we were just a bunch of grade-school kids, up to the usual tricks. We thought it original to imagine the old women who lived behind drawn curtains and quiet household veneers to be witches. We’d do the usual dumb stuff, like sneak up the walk as far as we dared, and then run when we heard a noise inside.
One evening Mrs. Sodergren, who lived just down the street from my grandmother, stealthily emerged from behind a lilac bush and caught me by the arm, wondering if maybe I wasn’t one of those Vagneur boys from out in Woody Creek. What can you say when a witch has you by the arm, but tell the truth? She invited us all in for lemonade and cookies, giving us a realistic look at the kind of crones we’d been dealing with up until then. Her novel approach fairly well ruined our little game, and boded well for the other old ladies in town, as well.
There was Mabel Beckerman, a different sort of “older woman,” who ran her own boarding house over where Orthopedic Associates is now located. On summer evenings, she’d sit out on the porch, sipping whiskey and smoking cigarettes, occasionally hollering at a 9- or 10-year-old kid running by, wondering if he had time for a smoke and a shot. Damned right, he did.
I don’t know where those women came from, but I suspect many of them were widows of men who had played the silver boom and bust to the bitter end. No doubt a few had been ranch women until their husbands died. They didn’t have much in the way of money ” only their tiny Victorian houses and grand gardens ” but they had pride in themselves and their way of life.
And it’s hard to say where they went. A few of them, the lucky ones I suppose, died in their own beds, blankets piled high, frail bodies shivering from a lack of affordable coal and the warmth of tangible friendships. The others got pushed out by escalating real estate prices and assessments from the town for utility improvements. Maybe they had families elsewhere, but mostly that’s what we tell ourselves to keep the nasty truth away. They had nowhere to go, but they couldn’t stay here. Just like their immaculate gardens in the path of bellowing cows, they themselves were simply collateral damage in the building of modern Aspen.
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My first step onto the natural lake ice is tentative as I launch off on a thin, stainless-steel blade. Will the ice support me? Will I go plummeting through into a hypothermic bath?