Tony Vagneur: Buying the house won’t bring them back
Driving down Main Street the other day, my buddy Bob says, “Your grandmother’s house is for sale — maybe you should check it out.” There was no need to drive by for a peek — I’ve been looking at that house all my life, and although it has changed over the years, the side view from Second Street is pretty much the same.
How do we measure the importance of old houses, and what is the hold they have on us? It isn’t the clapboard siding, the very steep roof with the decorative ironwork along the crest, the lace curtains, the wooden walkways, the foyer behind the expansive porch and unused front door, or even the carriage house. For the most part, those are but the physical accoutrements that frame our thoughts of days gone by.
The women, my maternal grandmother, Nellie, her sisters Marie and Julia, and brothers Jim and Tom, who all lived in that house together after they sold the homestead ranch that became today’s airport. The women were school teachers who worked well past retirement; the men, Tom who did physical work, ranching, cutting trails on Aspen Mountain, well into his 80s, and Jim, the youngest, who always led the Fourth of July parade on his horse, carrying the U.S. flag and who died in his 50s from a bad heart.
They all lived, amiably, in that house together. Marie, Aunt Wee, as we called her, raised chickens in the old living quarters attached to the carriage house, with a large fence outside, allowing chickens the freedom to come and go as they pleased.
Ten million memories, that’s what surround that house, not the house that sits there today, but the house they lived in all those years ago. The 1939 Ford always parked on Second Street, ready to go for the women to drive, until one of my grandmother’s students from years before borrowed the car for a short errand and never came back. Julia and my grandmother each bought new 1954 Chevrolets after that. The huge pine tree on the corner of Second and Bleeker that my grandmother parked her car under in the summer wasn’t very big at all when they bought the place in 1945.
For years, when I needed to get away from the rigors of school, I would take the short walk from the Red Brick school to Grandma’s house for lunch, where they were usually happy to see me. They fed me well and usually smoothed whatever ruffled feathers I might have. Sometimes I didn’t eat, just wandered over to say hello. It’s nice to have a place away from home where you’re always welcome.
My grandmother died the winter of 1964. That spring, maybe in late April or early May, a beautiful spring day, as I sat through some high school class, the urge to see my grandmother hit me, and with the ringing of the noon bell, I was walking over to her house with anticipation when the reality hit — Grandma wasn’t there! Silly, I felt a bit silly for letting myself get carried away like that, but more than that, for the first time, I think, the reality of Grandma’s death really hit home.
The family, Grandma and her siblings, the ones who hadn’t gotten married and moved away, or died prematurely, lived on the airport ranch for more than 50 years. They all grew up there and it was home base for the women who taught school out of the valley. It made sense for them to buy a dwelling in town together, I reckon.
The attic of that old house was filled with ranch memorabilia; old lariats, hair-out “woolies” (shotgun chaps), leather batwing chaps, a couple of old saddles, cowboy boots, and from one of the brothers who served in Europe during WWI, a pair of wooden shoes. Incredibly, it all walked away over the years, out the back door, piece by piece, by who knows.
The Christmas Eve parties were the best. Bill (Wm. C.) and Sam Stapleton made the eggnog and set up the bar; most of the young cousins and in-laws were there, and there was a celebratory mood of togetherness and tranquility. A large tree sat undisturbed.
One year, I’d invited my high school sweetheart Lawren for the celebration, and a few minutes before midnight, I grabbed her by the hand, slipped out the kitchen door and we began the three-block stroll down Bleeker Street to the Community Church for the midnight service. As we walked in darkness, snuggled tight, the church bells rang, the snow squeaked under our feet, and the closeness was unforgettable.
The house is still there, much changed, and to buy it, even if I could, wouldn’t bring back anything more than what I already have, some of which I’ve shared here.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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