Tony Vagneur: As Aunt Dula says, you’re never too old for an ice cream cone

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

A faithful reader, known to his internet friends as “Ski Bum,” sent me the following quote after my last column. It seems fitting this week.

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are those events that come at us from long past, happenings over which we had no control but return to the fore from time-to-time. The sizzled, permanent brand is deep and there is nothing we can do but deal with it as we dance along our path.

How I got to Denver, is not clear. A friend and I had gone to Nebraska to visit his grandparents, a four- or five-day trip. We’d left from Aspen and the drive there is still fresh in my mind, but as to getting to Denver after our visit, it’s uncertain. Maybe I rode a bus from Nebraska, maybe my friend dropped me off somewhere in the city. My step was light and I felt good even though at 17, I’d never been alone in the city before.

What I do remember is getting out of a taxicab in front of a small hospital, with a large faux alligator-hide-covered suitcase in tow. (The suitcase had belonged to my paternal great-uncle Dellore, and when he died, my dad brought it home along with some furniture and other items, the suitcase falling to me.) Pulling a rumpled piece of paper out of my pocket to double-check the address, I paid the driver, disembarked and walked through the large double front doors.

Directed to a room on the first floor, I could hear her hollering for a nurse to bring her some pain medication before I got there. Her spirits brightened for a few moments when she saw me, and we had a short visit, although most of it was about the pain she was suffering, and could I get her some relief. She was not herself.

Both arms and her right leg were tied to the bed in a fashion that didn’t give her much freedom of movement. The other leg sported a fracture at the hip, one of those catastrophic medical events in older citizens that many times lead to death, especially in earlier days, such as 1964.

Back at the nurse’s station, I tried to explain the situation with the pain, whereupon I was told she didn’t need any pain medication, it was all in her head. “Then why is she tied to the bed? She can’t go anywhere with a broken hip.” “Leave the nursing to us, we know what we’re doing,” was the reply. Being 17, I wasn’t really in a position to carry much authority, but those remarks hit me somewhere deep down inside.

My great-aunt, tied to the bed with a fractured femur, 77 years old, had gone to Denver with her remaining Aspen sister to spend the cold days of winter with another sister who had married and moved to the big city many years before.

Did they have plans to return to their Aspen house? Maybe; she asked if her car was still in the garage, but that is lost to history, and probably doubtful. With my aunt’s accident, plans were likely in the air. Additionally, our world was quickly changing as my parents had sold the Woody Creek ranch and were moving to Denver. After reporting the hospital situation to my mother, she immediately took control.

In the end, my great-aunt, who was a fireball of personality, born in Aspen in 1887, who had ranched, taught school and traveled most of her life, named Buttermilk Mountain (it was part of the family ranch) long before it became a ski area, and who wasn’t afraid to give me a cigarette from time-to-time, never walked again.

Shortly after my visit, my mother got her placed in a nursing home close to the house my parents had bought, and visits were done regularly. Painfully, the next time I saw my great-aunt, maybe two or three months later, she didn’t know who I was.

She died in 1972, but her unique way of looking at the world never left her. Shortly before her death, sitting beside her in one of those long, black limousines in a funeral procession for another family member, she turned to me with an impish grin and asked if we could tell the driver to stop for an ice cream cone. Rest in Peace, Aunt Dula.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at