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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Talking to the Stones

July 15, 2004

After living here on Heron Drive for eleven years, this summer I finally decided that it was time to take the back yard in hand, in a manner of speaking. It had always been a bit of an eyesore and besides, I was beginning to realize that I needed a fenced area where I could turn Gibson, my happy little beagle-cross wanderer, loose without having to search all of Arkell and half of Copper Ridge trying to find him again. The yard is a big area, even with the nice new garage taking up a fair amount of room, and is divided into two distinct sections.

The front part, behind the house and all around the garage is unlovely with gravel and biggish rocks as well as piles of surplus building material and wood and lumber awaiting an ax or a saw or yet another trip to the dump. It is uneven and lumpy and pocked with sump-y depressions where rainwater collects to provide incubation for the next mosquito hatch. The back part, about one quarter of the whole yard, is carpeted with moss and low-bush cranberry and old pine needles and slopes away to merge with the green belt directly behind us. Beyond the green belt is a service road and several old logging trails perfect for dog-walking or meditative strolling.

While studying the lay of the land, so to speak, and planning removals as well as additions, I took notice of a semi-circle of largish bits of granite that had been removed to the side of the lot during garage construction. “Nice,” I said, looking at them fondly, “you look nice there, almost as if you'd had grown right amid the moss and cranberry. And golly, wouldn't a little fountain look good tucked right into the middle of you, some pretty little statue holding an overflowing vessel of some sort. And it wouldn't take much to run an electrical line from the garage to run the pump...”

The stones jostled each other in delight and seemed to be on the verge of electing a spokesman to discuss the situation when my neighbour peered at me through the carragana hedge. “Who're you talking to, Ellen?”

I laughed weakly. “Oh, just these stones, telling them how perfect they are...” but she was already gone, shaking her head and muttering.

It wasn't the first time I'd been caught personifying my surroundings and probably won't be the last. It's this goofy imagination I possess, keeps me entertained and gives everyone else a chance to discuss me in tones varying from sympathy (as in, “Poor old thing,”) to exasperation (“Jeez, you should have heard the goofy old bat!”) Over the years I've even chronicled my little idiosyncratic musings and when I look back at them, I am tickled all over.

There was one that I particularly liked, one I documented almost fifteen years ago and as I maundered on about the mess out back and my perfect stones, I remembered the Roadside People and thought you might enjoy them more than a blow-by-blow of my back yard beautification program.

Lives of Quiet Desperation, Yukon News, 1990:

`I drive into Whitehorse every other week or so in the winter. And every time I do, for the past four or five years, I drive by a small group of people, quietly waiting by the side of the road just a few miles past the old dam.

` I never stop. And they never wave. But I know the moment I am out of sight they all put their heads together and laugh a little as one of them mentions a bit of gossip she heard concerning me and an old truck driver friend who stopped often and stayed long.

`I think that they might stroll up and down the driveway a bit as they discuss Yukon politics, the Sourdough Rendezvous board's Safer Sex campaign, the price of tea in China. And I'm absolutely certain that on a clear, starry night, if I parked my truck just over the rise and walked silent into earshot, I would hear sweet voices raised in harmony “Amazing grace,” I'd hear. And “Just a closer walk with thee.”

`They're tall people, and thin. Sometimes there are many, perhaps ten or twelve; other times, just a few. But many or few, they continually delight me with their presence and stimulate my imagination. I visualize the enjoyment of their builders, school children I suppose, making the best use of their time as they await the school bus.

`Last week I noted the name on a post by the driveway where they all hang out and, after a consultation with my phone book, I made a call. A pleasant young voice said hello. I introduced myself and described my enjoyment of the figures in her driveway. “They are wonderful,” I said. “Are they made by children waiting for the bus?”

`Rosemarie Briggs laughed, a charming little giggle that brought an answering smile to my own face. “Well, yes, my little brother, Bernard, and I build some of them.” She paused and laughed again. “But my mom and dad build the rest. Dad uses his bobcat to clean out the driveway and then gets off and piles up the chunks of snow and ice to make our people. Then my mom goes out and makes some more.”

`I was quiet a moment trying to remember the last time I'd built a snowperson, with or without my kids. It seemed a very long time.

`“Has anyone ever said anything to you about your people?” I asked Rosemarie. “No,” she said. “I don't think so. But one day I went out and someone had stuck a red rose on one.”

`We chatted a few minutes longer and hung up but it was quite a while before I could stop thinking about the Briggs family, Ken and Liesel, Rosemarie and Bernard, out in their driveway, turning the rubble of a storm into a crowd of whimsical figures.

`It took longer to get the goofy smile off my face!

`And the next time I'm come home from town on a bright, clear night, I going to stop just over the hill and walk back. And I'll set them straight about my truck driver friend and put in my two cents worth about the land claims and we'll sing of “...a mansion, in that bright land where we'll never grow old.”

`And just maybe, in the morning, I'll find that someone has stuck a red rose on me, too.'

Over the years I have humanized a lot of inanimate objects - lamplights, signposts, pie crust - and I've never felt anything but pleasure with my little conceits. Others, like my neighbour and certain members of my family, are of the opinion that my elevator has ground to a halt somewhat shy of the top and I'm about to embark on the next phase of my life's journey in the good ship, Alzheimer.

Truth to tell, I sometimes worry a little, myself, from time to time. Oh, not about the stones or the faces on the edge of the pie pastry, but about getting older and the problems attendant to advancing age.

After one especially stressful morning, I called my youngest daughter for reassurance. Her phone rang and rang and I was about to hang up when she answered, all out of breath.

“Sorry to take so long,” she puffed. “Nick finally finished putting up the fence and I was out back, painting. Sure is a big sucker.”

I waited until she had run down and then launched my own spiel. “Listen Lise, you gotta promise me that when I start losing it entirely, forgetting everything and take off my clothes and go running into the street, you'll look after me. Promise!”

Lise never missed a beat. “Of course, I promise, Mom. Why do you think we've built this fence?”

In all my life, no one has ever pinned a red rose on me or sung me a love song. Good thing, too. You should just see how misty I can get over a plain brown board fence.

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