Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 31, 2010
We never quite know the turning points, those wrecks of human nature that disintegrate families and grind memories into dust on the wind. And seldom do we stop to wonder, for that goes against the grain.
Julia Stapleton was born in 1888, the sixth of 10 children, on a ranch just outside of town. The Pitkin County Airport takes up the space now, even though her childhood home still stands, hidden behind hundred-year-old cottonwoods to the south. Her last Aspen home was on Bleeker Street, shared with her brother Tom and two sisters, Nellie (my grandmother), and Marie.
Over the years, Julia’s image has been captured in various locations. A 1920s shot shows her on a dapple gray horse in a late-summer avalanche path, in a place called “Snowslide Gulch,” up Willow Creek. She’s surrounded by men, who are clearly looking to her for direction. In the early ’60s, someone caught my sister and her riding horses across our Woody Creek ranch, both mugging for the camera. Another shows her on stage, announcing the cast for a 1950s school Christmas play.
If she had to have an occupation, you’d say it was school teacher, but that would sorely limit her talents because she was also a rancher, a bronc-buster, a businesswoman, a world traveler and an ornery cuss. She spent a couple of years teaching Tlingit children in the Yukon Territory, a mission of curiosity and giving. She went to Europe after World War I, energized by stories told by her brothers who had served in France.
In an era when women wore dresses, even ranch women, she’d rather put on a pair of pants, saddle her horse or work in the fields. Out of a family of reasonably stoic Irish (to put it mildly), she had a great sense of humor and could see through most tales of the unworthy sort. Good-hearted, she did not easily suffer fools; she could spot trouble at a glance and was always there to offer assistance.
It’s difficult to envision the force of Julia’s personality today, but back in the 1930s and 40s, when women were expected to remain unobtrusive, she loaned money, bought and sold property, propped up various enterprises, made sure her name was on the deed and stayed out of the limelight. For years, she owned all of what is now affectionately called Buttermilk West. Everything she had, she shared with her siblings and was generous with other relatives. Without the encumbrances of the law, she was a magnanimous and effective CEO.
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The winter of 1964, my grandmother died and Julia and Marie went to Denver to visit family, avoid the cold winter, and do their mourning. Julia took a minor fall; a broken hip, poor healing, and questionable medical care followed. As a 17-year-old boy, I visited her shortly thereafter in a Denver hospital, and left bewildered. Why did she seem so out of her mind with pain? Why did no one appear to want to help her and why did they keep her tied to her bed?
Doctors in that time period probably thought Alzheimer’s was a brand of clothing, if they’d heard of it at all, but I always suspected such brutal treatment cost her the brilliance of her mind.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the relatively rapid siege of no return had begun. We found Julia a nursing home of excellent reputation, but surprise visits weren’t comforting. Her brother Tom stuck it out for another winter in Aspen and then, driven by loneliness, joined his sisters in Denver. The dynamics had changed and they knew it was their last chapter, but they didn’t talk about it. Aspen had been their home for more than eighty years and now, for reasons all too human, they were giving it up.
Long before she died, Julia didn’t recognize any of us, but treated us each as if we’d just met and were going on a great adventure together.
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