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Tony Vagneur: When grief comes knocking


It’s a cold day in March 1958 as we leave Red Butte Cemetery, a blanket of sadness filling the air, but also a certain curiosity as to what lies ahead. “Of the five brothers, only one is left,” my father says. “What do you suppose his thoughts and feelings are?”

My mother, in an attempt to say she understands the significance of the loss, says to my dad, whose father we just buried, the only parent he’s known for the past 14 years, “We never really feel alone in this world until both of our parents have died.”

It’s feels like a Sunday, the usual dinner at my maternal grandmother’s house, the well-tended coal stove sending waves of heat through the house; finally, the door to the dining room is closed to try to keep the warmth corralled in the kitchen. They’ll open the door a few minutes before serving the baked chicken, dumplings, potatoes, gravy, salad, bread, butter, jellies and jams. But it’s not Sunday; it’s a working day for the town folks, and although many of them were gathered at the church to pay their final respects, they’ll soon be back on the job, minding store counters, loaning money at the bank, headed to their own ranches or places of business.



I’m stuck in the cold backseat, ears wide open to hear any conversation there might be about this tragic turn of events in our, in my, life, but there isn’t much to be said. How little we knew at that moment. Last night’s snowstorm left 82 a little snow-covered, although there’s a bit of sand and tiny rocks kicking up under the fenders as we travel along, as though going down a long tunnel, the end of which we cannot see; an unknown path that time, day by day, will be required to reveal.

We’re passing the ranch where my mother grew up, every summer spent there, no matter where her mother was teaching school. The whine of jet engines, like beleaguered dinosaurs trapped in tar sands, stains the air there today. It doesn’t occur to me until much later in life, well after her own passing, to ask what memories share her thoughts as we travel by; does she feel a sense of loss not living there anymore; or maybe there’s relief, or is that a chapter of life she has left behind, or maybe never reconciled?




My father is silent, as though in a dream, which possibly he is, although he’s doing a good job of driving, and my mother is unusually tight-lipped as well, perhaps afraid anything else she might say, a slight unintentional slip of the tongue, will reveal her dislike of the man we just buried. No one asks what I think; the wound is too fresh for my father, although at my age, I’m still naïve enough to hope that in times like these, parents know what to say, what to do to make things all right, but there is an unsettled awakening somewhere deep inside that steers me to realize I’m in this on my own, to deal with this grief in my own way.

Our Woody Creek house is warm, but after a death like that, a long, tedious life drain, it lingers; we have to walk past the room where he died, and for now, life has been sucked out of the house. It always is. We’ll have to reinvent how we live there without his presence, but there is no choice. We’ll get through. I quickly change clothes and get ready to go with my dad to check the cows below our house, in the pasture down by Grandpa’s.

Newborn calves, licked shiny clean by their mothers, nursing and standing strong, fresh green hay chucked out by the hired man to the replacement heifers, and things look good with the cattle as we walk through them. We go up to the corner and into Grandpa’s house, the house where he was born, where my dad was born, and where I spent so much time. No one has lived there for months due to Gramp’s illness and it’s ice cold inside, but neither of us mentions it.

My dad lights the gas heater in the kitchen and as it kicks out its promising warmth, we sit side-by-side in wooden table chairs, watching the flickering blue flame and looking out the windows, not talking, thinking our own thoughts, afraid maybe to share. The short-lived, wonderful gray light cast upon the snow by approaching dusk stirs us to fidget a bit, shift our chairs.

Finally, my dad gets up, turns off the stove and says, “I’ll come down around midnight and check them again, but it doesn’t look like there’ll be any trouble tonight. Let’s go home, son, it’s a long walk.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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