When Maureen Ebel's uncle called her at 10:45 p.m. Dec. 11, she feared a death in the family.
Instead, her Uncle Leonard gave Ebel news of another kind of disaster that would upend her life: New York investment manager Bernard L. Madoff had been charged with massive fraud.
Ebel, 60, a widow who lives outside West Chester and winters near West Palm Beach, thought she had $7.3 million with Madoff.
It became sickeningly clear over the next day or so that all her money was gone. "The thought that I have to work now as long as I can stand up to feed myself" shattered her comfortable world, she said.
Six days after Madoff's arrest for allegedly bilking investors in a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, Ebel had a strenuous temporary job caring for a wealthy friend's 93-year-old mother and keeping her house, pushing the vacuum cleaner and ironing.
"The first day, I went home and cried," Ebel said.
Ebel, a retired nurse with blond hair and big blue eyes set on a broad face that turns red with emotion, is no stranger to hard work. She got her first job at age 14. But she believed she had moved on for good.
"This is my fate," said Ebel, who is still pained by her husband's death in 2000, when he was just 53.
"I was married, had a fabulous marriage to a man I loved and worshiped, a physician. We traveled. We had a very fine life. And he's dead. He died, and every penny I had in the world has been stolen."
During an interview in the living room of her four-bedroom colonial on a West Goshen Township cul-de-sac, Ebel swung between despair over her losses, anger that Madoff still calls a Manhattan penthouse home after ruining thousands, and determination to build a new life.
Her friends are not surprised. "Her attitude is: This is not going to lick me," said Marlene Bezark, a West Conshohocken resident who has known Ebel for 35 years.
Ebel, who was born in Philadelphia and has lived in Chester County since she was 6 years old, is making big and small moves to battle back.
She listed her Florida condo with a real estate agent and put her Lexus SUV up for sale on eBay, hoping to sell it before the next $690 payment is due Feb. 15.
Selling the two-bedroom condo, which was appraised at $400,000 several years ago, is excruciating because her late husband was so happy there. "It was like a chunk of my husband that I still had," Ebel said.
But if the condo fails to sell in the miserable Florida real estate market, she cannot imagine what will happen.
To have any hope of making the $2,400-a-month payments on her house in West Chester, she will have to get recertified as a nurse, go back to work and take in a boarder, said Ebel, speaking with her hands to illustrate her feeling that parts of her body are being torn away.
She has already sold small items to scrape dollars together: a Ping-Pong table from her basement for $400, a painting for $1,500, jewelry for $1,100.
When she got to Florida on Monday to work on selling the condo, she remembered that she could return a $1,300 television to Costco.
Already last month, she returned thousands of dollars of items she had paid for with her American Express card, including a $5,400 set of porch furniture bought Dec. 9, a $5,000 club membership, and a $1,200 pair of earrings.
The first time she went to her local Publix supermarket in Florida after Madoff's fraud came out, she had a new experience picking out cream for her coffee.
Normally she would take whatever she wanted and put it in the cart, not paying much attention to prices on such a small item. But that time, she looked at the price of every single cream until she spotted a two-for-one sale. "Ah! That's for me," she recalled.
Then she came to a big display of two-for-one canned goods. "I'm rooting through the canned goods. What do I eat? Corn, I'll eat that. String beans, I'll eat that. Two-for-one. This is what it is after having had an income of $400,000 a year."
Ebel's uncle, 80, a longtime Madoff investor, got Ebel into Madoff's fund after her husband's death, thinking he was setting her up for life, Ebel said. "At that time, when he got me into Madoff, he had been a Madoff investor for 25 years, and now he's a Madoff investor and broke after 30 years," she said.
Ebel invested $4.5 million with Madoff starting in 2003. That was all of her assets except for one $50,000 bond, which she cashed last month.
Ebel kept her monthly statements from Madoff (that, for all the world, look real), collecting each year's in a separate folder. On the outside of each folder Ebel wrote detailed summaries of the statements.
"When you look at the statements, which are probably all bogus, you can see that he's just trading blue chips, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Wachovia, Abbott, Pfizer," said Ebel, showing an example from December 2007. "I got one of these every single month, and without fail I got my check every quarter."
In disgust, Ebel flipped through a 6-inch stack of transaction receipts on supposed trades for her account.
Ebel, who has registered with the FBI as a Madoff victim and is preparing documents to substantiate a claim, has decided that Madoff is a sociopath. Asked what she would do if she were alone with him, she said: "You can't print it."
She has suffered indignities, and kindnesses.
She was finally dating someone, but he is gone. "I wasn't the person I was. I got up and went to work everyday," she said. "I was working six days a week, and I'm tired when I get home."
On the other hand, a doctor who treated her for depression after her husband's death found her a sleep aid that costs just $4 a month, Ebel said.
Getting a good night's sleep is a relief, but it has not cast off her sense of irreality.
"Down in Florida, I live in this beautiful place, and I feel like an alien walking around. Everyone is going riding their horses and playing tennis, playing golf," Ebel said.
"If there's a nickel on the street, I'm picking it up."