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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation


April 15, 1996

Look, Dick.
Look, Jane.
See Mother.
See her watching all those people run.
Funny, funny Mother. 
Why is she shaking her head?

She's shaking her head, Sally, because she can't imagine for even one minute what makes all those people get up in the dark of night, drive a hundred and twenty-odd miles and then run, jog, scurry, or walk home.

I've walked home, once or twice.

One time, back in the olden days when my brother and sisters and I were very, very young...speaking comparatively, of course... we caught a ride from Johnson's Crossing to the maintainance camp at Brook's Brook to see one of the infrequent movies - Yes Virginia, it WAS a "talkie" - delivered under the combined auspices of CNT and the Northwest Highway System.  Halfway through the film, our "ride" decided that he's seen enough and left, apparently without a single thought for his hitchhikers. 

All of us being a bit backward, socially, to say nothing of being naturally-born chicken, no one had the gall to ask a friend's parent to drive us home at 10 o'clock on a dark, wet early-spring night.  So we walked.  And ran.  And jogged and scurried and scuttered, singing at the top of our lungs to keep the bears and the wolves at bay and the whimpering of some of our younger members to a minimum.

Realizing that something must have gone awry, Dad came looking for us about midnight in the old 5-ton White flatbed that got a mile and a third to the gallon.  If he was relieved to see us, he covered it well. Risking all, my older sister braved his grim silence and pointed out we'd covered nearly 5 miles in the two hours and look at all the gas we'd saved him. To this day, I don't believe he was all that impressed.

A year or two later, I did it all over again, this time coming home from Sunday School on a glorious, sunny afternoon.  The woods held no terrors for me that time but to speed the miles, I sang the hymns in a little printed pamphlet my teacher had given me.  A few of them I sang from memory, the rest I sang, loudly and lustily, as I marched along, to the tune of Rainbow At Midnight, an old Eddy Arnold cowboy classic.  "There is a gre-een hill, faraway, outsi-ide a ci-ity wall...Where our dear Lord was crucified...He di-ied to sa-ave us all."

While in my mid-teens, I once again found an occasion to walk home, but we don't have to go into that right now, this being a family newspaper and all.  Suffice it to say, Dad was not impressed then, either.

And so, yes, I guess that you could say that a time or two, I've had to rely on the old shank's mares to get me back to my starting-out place.  But I also want you to know that I've not ever driven uphill and downdale for several hours for the sole purpose of walking or running back over said hill and dale to reach home once more.  And I have to admit that I do tend to sit and wonder at the people who do, like the 800, give or take, who took part in last weekend's road relay from Skagway to Whitehorse, for instance.

Now, as I've mentioned a time or two, (*Ed. note: more correctly, nearly every other damn column!) I go for a stroll around the neighbourhood most evenings.  My constitutional, I call it.  But in fact, it's mostly that I'm so darn nosy and I like to keep my finger on the pulse, as it were: who's planting what, how the renovations on that nice house over on Thompson are coming along, whose gorgeous blue sports car is parked in that nice young bachelor's driveway these days.  

The stroll keeps me tuned up, physically and mentally, and I enjoy it enormously.  But I don't for one minute believe that I'd fade away and die if I couldn't do it.

But my daughter, the runner, does. 

In training for the relay, she would come limping into our home, halfway through her prerequisite six miles, wondering aloud why in the world she did it to herself. Sweaty, in spite of temperatures dipping to a few degrees above a temperature that would spell the end to life as my nasturtiums know it, she'd wipe her brow and ease onto the couch, rubbing the back of a calf as she did.

"Mmmm, feel that knot," she'd invited.  "Can't seem to work it out and does it hurt!  But not as much as these."  And she'd pushed off her socks to inspect two rows of toenails that looked like multicoloured kernals of Indian corn.  A callus, the size and appearance of a small, underdone pancake, covered the bunion area of her left foot; a broken blister, oozing pinkish fluid, adorned the heel of the right.

Upon viewing her self-inflicted injuries, I had moaned like a mama moose and exhorted her to pack in the foolishness; to give up this mad quest for heaven knew what, and quit while her feet still had some chance for healthy old age.

Give it up? she'd cried, incredulous that her own mother would suggest such a thing.  Give up the high, the rapture, the sense of being lighter than air and propelled, not by her pain and exertion, but by a force over which she no control?  Give up that sense of freedom and well-being, to say nothing of the side benefits: the trim bod and the sleekly muscled legs?  Fat chance.

So, while I could do no more than look on and agonize, Jo prepared for the relay.  Wrapped each toe in cotton wool and bandaids.  Applied corn plasters and moleskin patches in strategic places and covered them with two layers of sox and designer shoes that cost five times as much as a trip to town and back in Dad's old White. Layered on shorts and leggings and polypropelenelong johns; specially designed undergarments,
t-shirts, sweats, and Arctic fleeces; head band, toque, Thinsulated gloves covered with shearling mittens.

My concern was not so much that she'd never be able to run in all that clothing, but rather, given that driving force she talks about, that once she got it in all into motion, she'd never be able to get it shut down again. But she did.  They all did, all 800 of them. Ran and jogged and scampered and scurried up and over and down and finally made it home.

"So?" I asked, as Jo came limping up our steps. "How was it?" 

She smiled ruefully.  "It was terribly cold.  And excruciatingly painful.  And I didn't run as well as I'd hoped."  She brightened.  "But our team finished in the top third."  Would she do it again, given the pain and suffering and the disappointment in herself?  She thought for a moment and said, quite simply, "Like a shot."

Dad probably wouldn't have understood, either.  But I do think he would have been impressed.

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