A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, October 25, 2009

All Creatures Great and Small

(Above: Hey, who's that guy with Gideon and Tumbleweed Tommy?)

Everyone at Children's Fairyland in Oakland - both two-footed and four - is in mourning because their beloved friend, Marguerite Clemens of Concord, has passed away.
Her special relationship with Fairyland began in 2003, when Lampwick, one of miniature donkeys in the petting zoo, suddenly died.
Gideon, Fairyland's other miniature donkey, was devastated. He wouldn't eat, and he spent hours calling out for his friend.
Yvonne Backman, Fairyland's chief animal caregiver, and her staff spent hours trying to comfort him, but nothing worked. He was literally pining away.
The only thing that might help was a new friend. After much searching, Backman located a breeder about 200 miles away who had a tiny little spotted donkey named Tumbleweed Tommy for sale.
Trouble was, it would cost $550 - $500 to buy Tommy and $50 to transport him to Oakland. And Fairyland, which always operates on a tight budget, just couldn't afford it.
So I wrote a column about the situation, and you readers responded by donating all the money needed within 24 hours.
Tommy was duly purchased; and when he and Gideon finally met each other, it was love at first sight. And they've been inseparable ever since.
One of the contributors was Marguerite Clemons. A retired schoolteacher on a very limited income, she sent a check for $20. Then she sent another. And another. And another.
The checks kept on coming long after Tommy arrived. Sometimes she'd enclose a card to say hi. Sometimes the check would be for $10; and she'd apologize, explaining that money was tight that week. Other times she'd send a card and no check, and she'd apologize again.
She continued to send what she could for several years. But, believe it or not, she had never been to Fairyland in her life! She was 89 at the time, and her mobility was further hampered by a long-ago bout with Polio.
So she and Yvonne became pen pals. Yvonne would write back with photos and the latest gossip, such as Gideon and Tommy stealing the ducks' food. (But the ducks didn't mind because they were busy sneaking into the funhouse, where they would spend hours gazing at their reflections in the funny mirrors.)
But in 2005 she was finally able to visit Fairyland. I was there, and you should have seen the look on her face when she finally met Gideon and Tommy and all her other animal friends.
The folks at Fairyland gave her the VIP treatment, which seemed to surprise her. I don't think she realized how rare it is to find that much sincerity and goodness in a grownup. In little kids, sure, all the time. But not in big people. Marguerite was one of a kind.
She made a return visit in 2007. But last year she stopped writing, apologizing over and over again because she could no longer hold a pen to write. So she and Yvonne kept in contact over the phone.
But she kept declining over the last six months, and on October 4 she gently passed away. She would have been 93 on Nov. 20.
"Marguerite was a kind, gentle, soft spoken lady with a great love for books and animals and Fairyland and donkeys," says Yvonne. "And I will miss her very, very much."
You aren't the only one, Yvonne.

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