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First Motherless Christmas (Volume 70, November 15, 1999 - January 9, 2000)

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Friday, New Year’s Eve, 1999

I’m supposed to be amazingly reflective on the eve of the new millennium. I’m too busy cleaning up manure, scooping litter boxes and obsessing about the horse to give much thought to The Meaning Of My Life. I guess the pets are serving their purpose.

I read in the paper yesterday that most of the abhorrently expensive New Year’s Eve package deals promoters have been pushing for years are a big bust. This is the year almost everyone prefers to stay home, or hang out with a few close friends. Except in New York, of course, where thousands of people started massing in Times Square before dawn — what are they going to do for the next eighteen hours?

Ellis is watching TV. So far no countries ahead of us in crossing over that imaginary time line into 2000 have self-immolated or disappeared. ABC’s coverage would indicate that all electrical systems are go. After today, I hope never to hear or see the abbreviation Y2K again! (“K” is a weight or distance measurement; it should have been Y2M. DUH!)

George Harrison (I almost wrote George Lennon) was stabbed in his home yesterday. He’d been living a semi-reclusive life since John Lennon’s murder. Now no one will probably ever see him again. He’ll survive, in spite of a collapsed lung, but he’ll never be the same. His wife was hurt, too. Had he been in this country, he’d no doubt be dead. In England, it’s almost impossible to get a handgun. The pathetic, 33 year old former heroin addict’s counterpart in this country would have succeeded in gaining notoriety by murdering a Beatle.

It just makes me sick! The most pointless losers who have nothing to offer the world pick on the gifted artists who have given the world so much.

Boris Yeltsin resigned, six months early — his New Year’s present to the world. His successor is Vladimir Putin. The name means not a thing to me.

I’ve been in a holiday social phase, with no time to write.

Christmas Eve was pretty miserable. I raced around all morning getting ready to leave and making sure the house and pets were ready for the petsitter.

We left at about 11:15. Normally we take 80N to Marshfield and it takes a couple hours to get there.

On Christmas Eve, though, we had to detour through Middleton to drop Caramel off at a kennel. (Our top choices were full.)

I’d been so concerned with remembering his bordetella and other vaccination papers, and with figuring out when to pick him up since the time wouldn’t work out on the day after Christmas, that I never realized the kennel closed at noon on Christmas Eve. We pulled up to the dark, empty building at 12:39. That was a horrible moment. Caramel dodged a bullet — it looked like a pretty depressing place — a metal pole-shed type building in an industrial park area. We spent the next forty-five minutes driving around the Middleton—Waunakee area looking for other kennels. Ellis was vaguely aware of a couple in the area. But of course that didn’t work.

The upshot was that it took us over five hours to get to Marshfield, with Caramel, the uninvited guest, in tow.

During that long drive, with no horse or household chores to distract me, I dwelled on my mother. Whenever I let my guard down, the image that comes into my mind is the way she smiled at me as I backed out of her room that last time I saw her when she was still consciously aware. It was the most loving smile. Every time I think of that, I cry.

By the time we arrived at Ellis’ parents’ door, I was in a fairly volatile emotional state. I stayed in the car while he went in to explain why we had Caramel with us when we’d been given express orders not to bring him. I was so tired of being afraid of Ellis’ family, so not willing to deal with any disapproval. I ranted several times in the car, “If they say one thing, I will turn around and drive straight home with Caramel!”

Ellis came out after a couple minutes and said his parents were fine about the dog and that Ellen and Jack hadn’t brought Ginger to her kennel in Marshfield yet. They called and got permission to bring Caramel as well, since he could share a space with Ginger (his mother).

So, it was safe to enter the overwhelming mass of Felkers!

The first person I saw was dear, sweet Kate. She hugged me and asked how I was doing - I started to say, “so-so,” almost burst into tears and had to leave and go back outside by myself.

I sat on the bench crying ridiculously and trying to control my left leg, which for some reason had started shaking uncontrollably. I was half-hoping that Ellis would come out and see me in my pain, but he didn’t. After five or ten minutes I felt back in control so I entered the realm of Felkerdom once again.

This time it was Gretchen who greeted me. She was so sweet! She hugged me and held my arms and said, “You’re sad.” I was allowed to just sigh and look in her understanding eyes and say, “Yes, I’m sad.” It was a very calming moment.

The calm didn’t last long, as there was a big hub-bub relating to bringing Ginger and Caramel to the kennel.

Ellen couldn’t find her scrap of paper with the phone number on it; no one knew what the place was called. We had only vague directions, that it was before “F” on some other numbered road.

I went with Ellis to avoid the stress of talking to people and trying to appear cheery. Jack followed in his van.

Of course, we lost him, of course, we couldn’t find the place and in fact weren’t even certain we were in the right town. Of course, it was getting dark.

Eventually we backtracked and spotted an animal hospital with a couple barking dogs outside so I suggested we stop and get directions.

Lo and behold, Jack was inside! And that was the kennel! And they seemed very nice so I felt less worried about Caramel.

By the time we got back to the house, it was almost quarter to 6:00. We’d been in the car since 11:15.

I needed a drink. Ben, Ellis’ niece’s husband, made me a gin and tonic and I couldn’t get it down fast enough. It helped.

Ellis’ family celebrated Ellis’ 50th birthday that night. They’d had a couple large banners made, gotten a bunch of red and green helium balloons, and bought him a few cards and joke gifts.

We had incredible food — all sorts of appetizers, dips, hors d’oeuvres, etc., and wild rice casseroles that Kate and Gretchen made. Kate had been there for a week, slaving away, taking care of Gretchen and Pat, who were both sick, making food and polishing silver and doing errands. Everything was beautiful, delicious and perfect.

We stayed at the Comfort Inn. We slept in separate beds, thrilled by the idea of maybe sleeping well, without the constant intrusions of Caramel, Elroy and Tucker.

Christmas day was a long, slow day of eating and talking, only eating and talking. The Felker family opens presents on Christmas Eve so we did nothing on Christmas Day except talk and eat. I’m not complaining, mind you, but my god, did I eat a lot.

We had leftover appetizers and dips and tons of cookies (and pie and cake) and then a whole traditional turkey dinner. I got to eat real mashed potatoes and stuffing and cooked carrots so I was happy. Well, partly. My day was marred by thoughts of my mother (I woke up crying), and by minor physical problems. My toes itched! I didn’t know if I was dealing with a circulatory problem or a surface skin problem. Kate’s husband Larry looked at my worst toe — it was swollen and red — and told me to soak it in soapy water.

Al gave me a mysterious tube of ointment from his Chinese herbalist. It had chinese characters all over the label. (I said, “If you peel off this label, there’s probably a label for Tinactin underneath.”)

I put some of that on. For two days, it was socks on, socks off, rub toes, shoes and socks on, shoes off…it’s better now, at any rate.

In the afternoon my chronically sore shoulder hurt. I whispered to Ellis, seated next to me at the dinner table, “Could you do my shoulder later? I’ve got shooting pains running down my arm.” Gretchen heard me. She was so, so nice to me all week-end. She insisted that I go back to her bedroom with her. She got me a clean pillow, wrapped a gigantic heating pad around my shoulder and fastened the ties. Then she tucked me in. I had shoes on and she said, “That’s all right, the sheets can be washed” as she put my feet under the covers. What a feeling! I cannot remember the last time someone tucked me in. It must have been thirty years before. Such a simple thing — but what a great gift Gretchen gave me. (Besides alliteration.)

That night, I fell semi-asleep on the sofa in the living room. Six or eight people were playing the millennium version of Monopoly (one of Franci’s gifts); some folks watched TV in the den; some talked in the kitchen; some took walks; the rest stood or sat in small groups, talking. Gretchen got a blanket and gently draped it over me. “You’re fussing over me!” I accused her, smiling. She was just so kind.

Sunday we ate more and talked more and left at about 11:00. Gretchen and Pat complimented my jacket. I told them it was my mom’s, that she’d apparently ordered it last spring and never had a chance to wear it. Gretchen knows why I find comfort in wearing my mother’s clothes. She has several nightgowns that were her mother’s and she does wear them on occasion, in the summer. She still misses her mother and she’s 83. She was so empathetic and soft — not like the disapproving Gretchen at all.

I felt struck in the heart when I realized I’m going to have to grieve their deaths, too. Pat is 87, and painfully frail and giving.

We had a couple good talks about horses. People in Ellis’ family are very interested in the fact that we got a horse.

I heard some tales about Pete, their family horse. He was kept on a farm a few miles outside Marshfield. Pete was a palomino. He got the ax after a few years (I mean he was sold, not killed) because he ran away with Kate a couple times and Al, too. Kate remembers ducking under branches and holding on for dear life.

Kate had gotten my name for the gift exchange. She gave me two Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks, which are great, and a gift that really touched my heart. Pete’s blanket!

Kate’s been keeping it since she was 16 years old. She moved it wherever she went, from Marshfield to Madison to Denver, east to Staten Island and then to Teaneck and Brielle, New Jersey and finally to Cape Cod. It survived periods in storage, apartments, and various houses. It still has palomino hair matted all over the underside!

I don’t think that will be Rabbit’s blanket, as the colors are all wrong! It’s a black-green-maroon plaid that doesn’t do a thing for Rabbit’s dark brown and white coat! But it’s a nice training aid. I put it on his back a couple times already. He sniffed it intensely first.

Kate is great. Really, Ellis’ whole family is very sweet. Certainly they are loyal to family. I get along especially well with Mark, who is so wryly funny. It’s going to be just horrible for all of them when their parents die. I don’t think they’re very prepared.

Pat and Gretchen are going to Hawaii on January 20th. It’s Pat who really wants to go there. Gretchen would rather stay here. She’s afraid of a major health catastrophe occurring so far away, like it did last year when Ellis’ dad had to go in to the hospital. If they can stand the travails of traveling, it will do Ellis’ dad a world of good.

I’m lucky that Ellis comes from a big, close family. Marilyn feels bad that Jim’s family is so small, dysfunctional and fragmented.

It was really good to get home. The cats were fine, Rabbit was great. The petsitter left a nice note saying that the kitties were sweet (though Elroy has his moments) but her heart belongs to Rabbit. (When we dropped off her check and got our key back on Tuesday, she said she spent a lot of time hugging Rabbit and it was therapeutic for both of them.)

Finally, our chance to open our presents from my family. I got some great gifts — horse books and journal books and CD’s (Paula Cole and Eurythmics, who got together again and produced their first CD since the early 80’s, I think). Lots o’ stuff.

Once again, the week flew by.

We took Rabbit for a walk and he was so adorable. He could barely contain himself as we walked, but he did.

When I let him loose, he was so joyful and playful and buck-y and rear-y. He galloped in circles around us and he was so obviously glad to have us back that I remembered why I’d thought it was a good idea to get a horse! He is the cutest horse who ever lived, I am positive. He’s very endearing and has such a funny personality! He’s so beautiful when he runs I almost can’t stand it. Unfortunately, Ellis hadn’t brought his video camera with him. Rabbit did some spectacular long gallops — he was the essence of joie de vivre. He is fun to have around, that cannot be denied.

Monday I painted and tried to do a training session with Rabbit, using the new Parelli training halter and lead rope Ellis gave me for Christmas.

This time, things went a tiny bit better, meaning that, although he ignored me and didn’t grant me authority, at least I was not at all afraid of him.

He was so funny! In the ultimate expression of bored disinterest, in the middle of my command to walk forward, he suddenly dropped to the ground and started rolling in the snow. Ellis said his meaning couldn’t have been more clear if he’d put on a bathing suit and gone for a swim!

It was so bratty and deliberate and very clever that I had to turn around so Rabbit couldn’t see me laughing. I left that session not feeling so hopeless, though we didn’t really accomplish anything.

Our house was once again a sty; Jeanne and Callie and Darcy were coming back on Wednesday. So Tuesday I did errands in town with Ellis and cleaned. I couldn’t put presents away until I’d written thank-you notes, so I did that, too.

Here’s a post-script about presents:

Ellis’ parents wanted to buy him a good pair of boots for his birthday but they forgot to include a check in his card. They told him to go ahead and get a pair and they’d give him a check on Christmas.

Because we’re so broke, Ellis got out the boots he bought last year and spent two days applying layer after layer of shoe polish so he could wear them to Marshfield and his parents would believe they were new! Ellis told them the boots cost $75, which they did. His dad said something about how they were cheap boots and gave him a check for $150, which Ellis promptly used to pay bills. They would be very perturbed if they knew how close to the bone we live, in spite of their generous help!

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