Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
He was the odd man out, it seemed, the one who had no children, lived on McLain Flats instead of Woody Creek, the man who always had a sweet-smelling, unlit cigar in his mouth and who chewed it down until there was nothing left but the thought.
Our neighbor, he owned a ranch to the east of our biggest mesa and was my granddad’s brother, which if you figure the genealogy, also made him my great-uncle. There’s an innocent fascination to be found in great-uncles, especially if you’re young enough to not quite grasp the concept. They’re special for reasons we don’t really understand, but we give them our love because they have the aura of family. At least that’s how it was for me.
If there was a class clown at the Woody Creek schoolhouse, it likely was my great-uncle Dellore (1884 to 1956). Old photos show him in an unusual hat, a look of mischief on his face. In life, there was a touch of irreverence about him, a characteristic that spelled out individualism in a valley that required independence to survive.
He fell in love with a nurse at Aspen Citizens Hospital, a well-educated woman who seemed content to live on the ranch, far from the social life she’d grown up with. Molly was a frail woman, held back by ill health, and it soon became apparent that the rigors of ranch life were more than she could easily endure.
To help out, Dellore hired women from town, mostly widows who also found life a bit tough for one reason or other, and gave them room and board along with a salary while they performed their duties: making bath and laundry soap, running the milk house, cooking for the hired hands and canning everything from meat to wild raspberries.
Dellore and Molly also made fontina gourmet cheese, the recipe brought to this country from Valle d’Aosta, Italy, by his parents. Like all the other offspring of Italian immigrants, Dellore was a good winemaker, delineating his wines not so much by taste and aroma as by quality. Depending on the guests, Dellore would send one of the widows or his visiting young nephew Wayne Vagneur to the basement, asking them to bring up a first, second or third quality wine.
Ranch life doesn’t always mirror the romantic vision outsiders have, and when winter came, most of the extra people working around the place disappeared. In an age when automobiles had become the standard of transportation, no one plowed Dellore’s mile-long driveway, and a rare trip to Aspen meant harnessing the team, wrapping up in some warm Hereford cowhides and taking a long, quiet sleigh ride into town.
A lifetime of being reliant on someone, for the human connection they provide on those interminable short days and long nights, keeping loneliness and tedium away, makes us vulnerable to the loss of that person. Looking out over the snowy expanse of a wind-whipped, desolate feed ground on a cloudy, flat, light day, the touch of another’s hand is enough to make it all worthwhile.
In their late 60s, Molly and Dellore sold the ranch and moved to an up-to-date one-story house in Glenwood Springs to enjoy the culmination of a life’s work. Molly valiantly lived a year, and Dellore, distraught at the turn of events, stoically hung on in her absence.
Indifference replaced irreverence as Dellore’s psyche slowly began to unravel. The independent man, the prankster, the man who made a little kid feel wanted and who uniquely enjoyed cigars, ultimately faced the loneliness on his own terms. Ben, my grandfather, found him on the back patio of the Glenwood house, a 12-gauge shotgun lying by his side.
As we wonder, for the rest of our lives, the myriad ways of facing our own mortality, down the generations roll the belongings of a man’s life, spread out and appreciated for their link to the past. One of Dellore’s oak desks occupies my guest room and the
double-barreled 12-gauge forever hangs in my gun closet.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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