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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

In the Event of a Depression

January 15, 2003

"...And what is it, exactly, that seems to be the problem?" The nice receptionist at Pine Clinic wasn't really prying, she simply wanted to be able to alert the good Doctor to any new development in my usually minor complaints.

"Oh, just not sleeping very well, a few headaches, a general malaise, you know, nothing in particular."

And that's what Lise Densmore concluded: nothing in particular. Perhaps some slight depression, nothing that a little socializing and a trip or two out on the old Skiloms wouldn't cure. I left the office clutching a prescription for a gentle sleep aid, her advice on waxing for present snow conditions ringing in my ears, feeling better just for having visited with her, my confidant of nearly half a lifetime.

But what was it she'd said? Depression? Me? Ellen? The merry and smiley old elf who inhabits the nether reaches of Mac's Fireweed, dispensing jokes and cookies in equal measure? The one who is constantly having to be reminded that singing is not permitted "on the floor" and that boisterous chatting should be done in a whisper and kept to a minimum? The one who gets out of bed talking, whose cup is always half-full, who picks up hitchhikers without any hesitation and organizes sing-alongs while waiting in line at the postal outlet? That Ellen depressed? Nah.

On the other hand... perhaps we would want to consider two recent momentous events occurring in my life. To whit: At the end of September, I lost my husband, Phil, and then, three weeks later, I turned 65.

That's such a silly expression, I "lost" my husband. As if we'd been shopping and had become separated. "Would Mrs. Davignon please come to Customer Service and collect her husband?"

In the first place, it's really hard to lose a six foot tall, 250 pound old Yukoner who has spent all of your years together right smack under your feet. You might deliberately misplace him for a few minutes, or even go into another room and close the door pretty firmly to indicate a need for a bit of breathing space–and in the course of 47 years I'd found it necessary to do quite a lot of that–but you don't lose him. And second, and more importantly, even if circumstances dictate that he journey on ahead, he really has not gone anywhere.

Who do you think I talk to when I get out of bed in the morning? Come on, you guys. I might be a jolly old ditz but I haven't yet reached the stage where I talk to myself. Of course, I talk to Phil.

"Holy, look at that, it's minus-damn-25 this morning. I wonder if the car'll start?" And I hear right back, "Well, I've told you and told you to plug the darn thing in when you come home at night. Easier'n jump-startin' 'er..." He listens, more politely than he used to, I have to say, to my complaints with regards my latest parking ticket, the price of pork, and the difficulty in finding just the right gift for our first-born who turned 46 last week, and I know that he LOVES the fact that I got such a good deal on a used part for my dishwasher and that the guy threw in the bearing for nothing.

I hear him snickering when my bread comes out less than perfect and I hear him muttering as he roams the house with me, looking for my glasses for the unpteenth time this week "...if you'd put them in their holder just once..." Sometimes the glasses turn up in a place where I know I've already looked–and I suspect a modicum of other-worldly interference.

But I also have tangible evidence of his continuing care.

Two years ago, Phil gave me a new pair of the sheepskin slippers I love. I admired their creamy newness and pristine beadwork, then put them away on a shelf, preferring the comfort of my old ones, which were, in the vernacular, "just getting' good." They did need a bit of darning from time to time but I had only to mention it and Phil would get out the trusty darning needle and waxed linen thread that had travelled with him from his farming days, and mend them. He was good, that way, took care of all my little problems for me.

At the end of last winter, when I was putting away winter footwear, I complained that my old slippers had about had it, the holes were getting too big and that I would have to retire them.

"You've got those new ones," Phil reminded me. "Yeah," I murmured sadly, shaking my head over the sorry state of my ragged companions. "But I really loved these old things."

This fall, when I pulled out my winter footwear out of the box, my old slippers were right on top, shapeless and worn, but with the ragged holes neatly aligned and cross-stitched together.

Tangible care, indeed.

And then there was the matter of the propane furnace.

When we moved into the trailer, Phil insisted on putting a wood stove in the porch. The propane would be fine for an emergency but as long as he was able to haul wood, that's how we would be heating our home, all my complaints about smoke and soot and ashes notwithstanding. "It's a nicer heat," he'd say, wafting a big hand through the air. "You know...smoother."   Just before he went in to the hospital for what we knew would be his last time, Phil had a new and larger propane tank put in and filled, and made arrangements with our son-in-law, Nick, to light the pilot light show me the fine, if negligible, art of operating the furnace. "I don't want Ellen to have to worry about lighting fires or have to bring in wood. She's tired of the mess and this way she won't have to always be cleaning up dirt and wood chips." Nick complied with Phil's request and now I heat our home with propane.

At least, some of the time, I heat with propane. The rest of the time, I labouriously haul wood and split kindling and make a mess and smoke up the ceilings and get ashes on everything and enjoy the even, pleasant heat of the old RSF energy efficient heater. Because Phil was right, you know. It is smoother. Quieter. And when you back up to it, it provides a lovely radiant heat, right where it feels best. Just like a big, warm hand.

And so, what with the conversations (and the more tolerant attention) and the glasses and slippers, to say nothing of the laughter I hear every time I light the fire, I'm really pretty OK in the Phil department. Which leaves me to think that it might be the other, that makes me feel just a bubble off plumb.

Now, I probably should tell you that I've never had a problem with birthdays, never wished to be any age other than the one I am. I've never had any particular beauty that I feared would fade with age and most of the time I was too busy to remark the passing of time other than with the brief and heartfelt request, "Lord, please just let me get through this!" Thirty was just the year that followed twenty-nine. Fifty brought a hysterectomy and a guitar but no angst with regards an unfulfilled youth. I spent my sixtieth birthday on the Millford Sound in New Zealand without a thought to the arrival of yet another milestone. And my only thought upon achieving my sixty-fifth birthday was, "Thank God they no longer have mandatory retirement!"

So why, I hear you asking, should the relatively innocuous occasion of my sixty-fifth birthday make me less that satisfied with life. Is it the hair, you ask solicitously? Less on the head, more, and bristlier, on chin? Or is it that you're tiring of the perpetual struggle for the unachievable, for the taut and well-tuned bod? Let it go, you cry, drop the torch, we love you just the way you are, just the way you've always been: fat and comfortable to lean against.

No, my friends, it's not that extra padding that bothers me. Even though I still go through the motions, I came to terms with that a long, long time ago. It is neither the hair, not the lack of it, and before you ask, no, it's not the wonky hip or the vague aches and pains that flitter from site to site. It's you, my dear friends and family.

You are the ones who are causing my discomfort.

Oh, I know you mean well and I know you are only trying to be kind. But really, I wish you'd just cut it out.

I'm a strong woman, physically and mentally. Oh sure, I can be a tad flaky: I tend to lose glasses and keys with dismaying regularity, and unless I write down the dates, I forget appointments and meetings.   I complain about the misery in my hip and it seems to take me longer to get my legs moving smoothly after sitting down for a while. Compost Day comes and goes before I remember to empty the pail under the sink.

But none of that happened just because I all-of-a-sudden qualified for the Old Age Pension.

I can still clean off my own porch, shovel the snow from my driveway, bring in my own wood. It's lovely that you do it for me and sometimes it's nice to come home and find the yard has been scraped clean. But I enjoy doing it myself and like the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with it. I know you don't mean to take that away but it does, to some degree.

When I mention that, finally, I'd got around to washing my walls, please don't say, "You washed your walls yourself? Good for you!" As if the fact that I had been able to do it, rather than the fact that they were really grubby, was the issue.

When I reach to pick up a bucket of books, I want you to know that it ticks me off when some sweet young thing with half my girth and less than half my horsepower, rushes over and says, "Oh don't do that, Ellen. Let me lift that for you."

And sometimes, when I'm on the street, or downstairs at Mac's, or even in my own kitchen with my family clustered about the table, I sometimes get the feeling that just for a few seconds, I've become invisible, that no one can see me or hear me; that maybe it's ME that's been lost. And for you guys to lose a lady with my displacement and volubility for even a few seconds... now that's depressing and I want you to quit doing that.

And if you don't, I'm telling Phil.

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