After Diane and I got married we moved to a remodeled barn down a dead end road about 30 miles east of Fargo/Moorhead. One of the first things we did was use our student loan money to buy a horse. He was a big, handsome, gray quarterhorse who followed us around our pasture like an overgrown puppy, putting his head on our shoulders when we worked in the garden or mended fence. We named him Winnie, like Winnie-the-Pooh.
Once when we were gone for the weekend, he got out and we tracked him across Clarence Hazelrud’s soybean field, then lost his trail on the gravel road. It was Sunday morning, and when we called our landlord to tell him our horse was gone, he told us to go to church. “You’ll find him there,” he said. We went to the little country church and told the pastor our horse was missing. He made an announcement, and three people came up to us after the service, saying they’d seen him. The third even knew where he was.
We decided Winnie needed a horse friend, so we started looking for a companion. After an ill-fated experiment with a horse called Slim, we finally found Toula, who was the granddaughter of a Morgan called Chub Lake Tea Time.
Families are weird. Every family has its own little inside jokes that no one else would think are funny. You find this out when you get married. “Oh, so it’s not just our family that laughs at the same stupid thing over and over again?”
One of our first stupid jokes happened when I brought Diane her coffee one morning. I don’t remember who, but one of us said, “Chub Lake Coffee Time!” That stupid joke followed us to International Falls (Rainy Lake Coffee Time!), Milaca (Rum River Coffee Time!) and now New Zealand (Waiau River Coffee Time!).
We were riding in the car singing a couple weeks ago, when Diane was trying to think of that “On Top of Spaghetti” song, to the tune of “On Top of Old Smoky.” Instead, she sang, to the tune of “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine,” “Lost my meatball, lost my meatball!” Now whenever one of the kids wants to get a laugh, they just break into that song. I’m sure we’ll be singing it when we’re 90, if we make it that long.
Along with bad jokes, family is all about stupid fights. We had one last week when we went to Queenstown, which is known as “the adventure capital of the world.” It was early, and we stopped for breakfast on the way to do some skiing at a place called The Remarkables.
I was feeling tired and cynical, so I said, “I wonder how many adventure capitals of the world there are?”
Diane said, “But this one really is the adventure capital of the world.” I laughed, she defended herself, and it suddenly escalated into a real argument. The kids sat silently, thinking this was going to be the worst day of skiing ever.
It wasn’t. We got over the fight, said we were sorry, and (after a harrowing 13 kilometer drive up the side of a mountain) spent a beautiful sunny day skiing and looking across the valley at rugged, snowcapped peaks straight out of Lord of the Rings.
This morning, Diane was looking through a guidebook about Wanaka, drinking the coffee I made her. “It’s another adventure capital of the world,” she said.
We laughed. Nothing needed to be said, but I could sense a new family joke in the making.
We celebrated our 15th anniversary the other day with a seafood lunch in Riverton, looking across the bay toward Invercargill. Fifteen years of bad jokes and stupid fights, coffee time, kids, and animal friends. And funerals. Diane’s sister Sarah, my dad…
After we got Winnie, we got two dogs, Georgia and Fargo. Later we added Toula. Georgia died of cancer after four years. When Fargo saw her body in the trunk of the car, she jumped in with her. We were living in International Falls at the time, but we buried Georgia at our place near Milaca, with our friends joining in to say goodbye. Our daughter and our neighbors’ son were a year and a half.
Fargo turned 13 last year. She was getting old and sick and deaf and blind, so we put her to sleep before we left for New Zealand. We had a funeral in the same place, but this time with our two kids and five neighbor kids instead of one. We sang the same song and buried her by her old friend.
Last summer, Winnie got a horrible infection in his tail. My brother is taking care of him while we’re in New Zealand. He emailed the other day to tell us the infection is back, and that Winnie has a tumor that’s keeping the tail from healing. He’ll have to be put down soon. Toula will be without her lifelong friend.
This time, we’ll miss the funeral.