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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Comin' Ashore in PEI

October 15, 1998

No one told me how hot it was going to be in Prince Edward Island. 

"It's beautiful, there," they cried.  "It's red and green and blue and bonny, m' darlin'," they elaborated, then smiled and added, "and both the people and the weather are friendly to visitors."  And I went, prepared to be at one with all the red and green and the congenial climate with my light jackets and trousers and my last winter's casual denim power suit with the washed-with-stones look and the beaded lapels. 

Fortunately, at the last minute I also threw in a pair of cut-offs, the ones I wear when I'm into serious housecleaning, and an old blue and white cotton shirt, tattery of collar and cuffs, held together with spray starch and prayer.  The second day of 28 C. temperatures with 95% humidity found me at the door of my room in the shorts and shirt, trying to get up the nerve to venture out in front of God and everybody.  Three trips back to the big mirror told me that with the panty hose covering up the fish-belly white of my knees and firming up the quivering flesh immediately above, I looked just fine and for pity gracious, just go and Do IT.  So I did.

"You DIDN'T!" exclaimed my mother, when I told her.  "I did so," I said with a grin, knowing that my announcement had scandalized her right down to her gnarly old toenails. "And wore them on the beach and the wharf and in the restaurants and the malls.  Felt pretty comfortable in them, too." Ma was silent for a moment, her disapproval palpable.  Finally, she stirred irritably in her chair.  "A fat old grandma like you, in shorts.  What would people think?" she asked in a querulous tone. 

I had to admit that I didn't know what they thought; no one seemed to find me, or my garb, out of the ordinary except when I was rosy and perspiring in my Sunday go-to-church clothes.  And then all I got was an are-you-nuts? doubletake. 

In fact, I found PEI to be very like the Yukon in many ways.  And not just in the acceptance of my ventilated shirt and the abbreviated britches that showed a lot more of Ellen than Ellen is accustomed to showing, either.

Both province and territory are islands, of sorts.  PEI truly is one, its red sandstone shores bounded by the sparkling blue waters of the Northumberland Straits on one side; the Gulf of St. Lawrence on all the others.  Yukon, too, is an island, sorta, surrounded by land, by miles and miles of miles and miles.  We already have our causeway, the Alaska Highway, linking us to the rest of Canada; they are still arguing over theirs, a 7-mile span joining them to New Brunswick, opening them up to any number of modern diseases, not all of which can be treated by a pill or potion.  It is a subject of great controversy and no one is wishy-washy on the subject.

As well as the island similarity, we both use a euphemism to refer to the rest of Canada.  Yukoners, of course, say "Outside," as in, "I'm going Outside for a holiday," or "My friend is visiting from Outside." In PEI, the word is "Away," and anything or anyone who is not native to the Island must therefore be from "Away."  Another unique Island expression that caught my fancy: they refer to rubber boots as "comin' ashore" boots.  Don't you love it?

My greatest delight in the Island, however, was in the sense that the people there were just Yukoners that had not made it this far north and west, yet.  Given my penchant for...um... palaver, and being from Away, I was fearful that my tongue might grow rusty with disuse.  I needn't have worried.  I soon found that walking around Charlottetown was just like walking around Whitehorse: every third person wanted to stop and chat.  By the end of my first day there, I was pretty much chit-chatted to a standstill. 

Salesgirls called me "darlin'" and wanted to know if I'd ever met Jamesy McDonald, he'd gone to the Yukon last years and hadn't written, even though he'd promised he would.  On Peakes Wharf at the end of Great George Street, young men, whiling away the long days on Peakes Wharf, told me about being unemployed "comin' t'ree years, now" and offered me a sips of wine from their brown paper bags.  A lady resting in the belvedere atop Beaconsfield, an elegant home built in l877 for shipbuilder James Peake J., thrust her fists deep into her shorts pockets and spoke pungently about her husband, Donald, who had a bad outlook on life.  Not knowing Donald, or her, for that matter, I could only shake my head and tut-tut in commiseration. 

One lady, whom I stopped for consultation regarding the wonderful big shade trees that lined the streets, shook her head regretfully and said, "I'm afraid I don't know, you see, I'm from away mysel', an' been here only four years.  But Hilda's from here, she'd know.  Hoo-hoo...Hilda..." Well, wouldn't you just know that Hilda knew about the trees (Lindens) AND the big birds down on the mud flat (Blue Herons) and by the way, her brother lived in the Yukon, would I perhaps know Ralph Fitzimmons?

Well, certainly I knew Fitz, doesn't everyone?  And I was charged with bringing greetings home to him.  And Ken McPhee's sister, Norma? Donna? sends best wishes.  Myrtle says to say Hey! to Linda and that the baby is a lovely girl; they've named her Hilary Anne.  Paul Knox gave me a message for Major and Pat Evans; Frank and Juanita Turner said to say hello to Sue Klassen; John and Eleanor Reynolds send love to Frank and Rita Mooney; Jean sends hugs and kisses to Tom, Tammy and especially, Paul; and about five minutes before I checked out of my hotel room, a young lady phoned to ask if I knew a fellow named Bodger. 

I had to confess that there were no Bodgers in my memory bank but undaunted, she hurried on to tell me that if I should ever become familiar with the gent, I should pass along the message that Marion said that the coast was clear.  Something to do with the weather or the tides, I guessed out loud, and she laughed and agreed and hung up, still laughing.

PEI was wonderful, just as everyone said it would be: red and green and blue and beautiful.  They put on a little fog and mist, just the right amount to activate the meager curl in the old hen-poo brindle, and then enough sun to gild the hair on my legs.  I ate lobster and chowder at every meal and came home with a purse full of Malpeque mussels and potato fudge.  People were friendly and there were lots of interesting things to see and do and I thought that I would never be able to take it all in.

But finally, it was enough.  I began to wonder how Phil and Keel were making out without me, started to miss my grandbabies and my own bed.

Making one final round of the wharf and Water Street, I bid a fond farewell to the Charlottetown Harbour, partook of one last Potato Blossom Two butter tart, packed my shorts and my new red comin' ashore boots, and headed for home.

After all, isn't that what all homesick Islanders, sorta or otherwise, must eventually do?

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