Judy Nelson already has her Christmas present: Her cat Sugar returned home after disappearing for more than two years.
They were not far apart, but never crossed paths until a chance meeting recently with a couple who recognized the feline in a "memorial" photograph.
Nelson had no idea an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner would lead to a reunion with her pet several weeks ago. Dan and Donna Cornwell, who manage the apartments at the Airport Mini Mall, noticed the picture in Nelson's living room after driving her home from dinner Nov. 23.
"I see this cat and it looks identical to the one I got at the apartment complex," Dan Cornwell said. "It had the same markings and the same droopy stomach."
It closely resembled the domestic short-hair, with light brown marbled fur and the same white bib, white socks and tiny white speck on its nose. Nelson wanted to be sure. She had already paid a $50 reward for a cat that looked like Sugar, but was anything but sweet.
Soon after she hung up her missing cat posters, two neighborhood kids showed up at her door. Nelson, who is legally blind, gave them each a big hug and the money.
She closed the door, picked up the cat and brought it into her well-lit kitchen. That's when the fur started to fly.
"It was acting like an animal, so I said 'You're out of here' and shoved it in a cat carrier," Nelson said. "I felt so stupid, but that's what happens when you can't see very well."
She had a good laugh with the Gastineau Humane Society worker who arrived within minutes to take away the Sugar substitute.
Nelson considers herself an optimist despite having her share of personal tragedy. She lost her son, Calvin E. Nelson, in Juneau on Aug. 19, 1996. She lost her husband, Calvin A. Nelson, two years later. She was by his side with family when he died in Arizona on Aug. 1, 1998.
"It was the same day Sugar disappeared from a friend's house near the airport," she said. "Augusts have been pretty crummy for me."
Nelson also has five daughters, two of them still living in Juneau.
Photographs of "big Cal" and "little Cal" hang on what she calls the memorial wall in her Glacier View Mobile Home Park living room. Nelson later added the picture of Sugar, her way of accepting that her cat was not coming home.
She still had a dog, Fannie Mae, to keep her company.
"And then there's my extended family," said Nelson, referring to the congregation at Juneau's Mormon Church. "They've been a blessing and one of the reasons why I'm still in Juneau."
So when church friend Dick Winchell invited her to Thanksgiving dinner, she quickly accepted. Winchell, the owner of the Airport Mini Mall and Apartments, also invited his sister and brother-in-law, the Cornwells, who manage his apartments.
Sugar apparently showed up at Dan Cornwell's workshop soon after running away from his temporary home two years ago. He fed her, gave her a warm place to sleep, and then had to listen to Winchell complain about "that darn cat."
"I've been trying to get my brother-in-law to get rid of it because we don't allow pets out there," Winchell said. "I told him he was setting a bad example for the tenants, but he fell in love with the cat."
Winchell, an ex-marine and former cop, turned out to be the Grinch who saved Christmas for Nelson.
"Here she thought her cat was dead and gone, and all of a sudden it's resurrected simply because of her going to a Thanksgiving dinner with us," he said.
Nelson and Sugar were reunited the next day. She then took the cat to the veterinarian and groomer. Sugar had lost several pounds and put on some dirt.
"It's incredible that something like this can happen in Juneau," said Cheryl Ann Young, who groomed Nelson's pet at the Big Dog Bath House. "This is such a small town, but those few miles were chasms between Judy and Sugar."
The distance would have been much greater if Nelson hadn't met the Cornwells, who were planning to take Sugar with them to North Carolina in the spring.
"I'm just glad the cat is back with her rightful owner and not in the hands of Dick," Dan Cornwell joked.
Mike Sica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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