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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

As You Wave Me Goodbye

May 15, 2005

Under a ‘Teslin News" banner in the November 27, 1967 issue of the Whitehorse Star, I wrote: "Spring is Sprung! And winter had hardly set foot in the door."

Worlds did not collide. The Yukon River continued to flow, unchallenged, to the Bering Sea. The Star did not have to run extra copies to fill a sudden demand. And I still had to stumble out the next morning at 6 o’clock to turn on the grill in the drafty kitchen of the old Johnson’s Crossing Lodge and get ready for the breakfast crowd, none of whom would realize their bacon and eggs was being prepared by a Published Writer.

My first column, a short piece about the installation of officers for the newly established Teslin Women’s Institute and the problems of making curling ice under the unseasonably warm conditions, was written at the behest of the Whitehorse Star looking for community news. When no one else express an interest in writing the once-in-a-while report, I volunteered. I lived at Johnson’s Crossing, 30 miles north of Teslin, but what the heck? "Phone me the news," I said. "I’ll bash it into shape and mail ‘er in. How tough can that be?" Tougher than I thought, obviously, because those early columns were pretty bad. The news was less than earth-shaking; the segues, rough; the style, arch, and bordering on the silly. But bad as I was, in the good old Yukon tradition of allowing one to sink or swim - and paying me 10 cents a column inch while I floundered - they encouraged me to continue until I finally developed, if not a powerful breaststroke, at least a pretty decent dog paddle.

I reported Teslin gossip on a more or less regular basis for the next five years, stopped to add Keeley Adam to our ever-expanding family and, in the interim, decided I’d was tired of writing about bonspiels and other people’s babies. In 1974, when the editor of the Yukon News, contacted me about writing a column of my own choosing, I am somewhat ashamed to tell you that loyalty to the nice people at the Star, who had persevered with my early efforts, did not figure into my reply.

"Yes!" I told her. "I’d love to write about the turbulence of a family-run business on the Alaska Highway. Any constraints as to content?" In her reply, Pat Living wrote: "…I’ll accept whatever you consider news; much of it will be light, I expect. To start, you will be paid at the column inch rate of 30 cents. We send cheques monthly and I’d like to have a column from you every other week, unless you feel that would be stretching it…"

With a fine disregard for the word "news" I submitted my first piece, which they entitled, at my suggestion, Lives of Quiet Desperation, and subtitled it, News from Points South. After three columns, they bowed to the inevitable, that the "n-word," as such, would forever be non-germane to my offerings, and dropped the subtitle. For the next 30 years, the only change in the headings of my columns was to the surname of my byline: usually it appeared as Davignon; occasionally, it turned up as D’Avignon . But Davignon, or D’Avignon, it was the same ditsy, desperate dame who, a couple of times every month, laid bare her soul and her life for public scrutiny.

Nothing was sacred. Tourists, government inspectors, and school administrators all took their lumps. Elections, local and national, and their impact on the even tenor of our ways, were discussed with sniggering disrespect; Pipeline hearings and community developments, with scorn and indignation – who did they think they were, putting a 5-mile pipeline corridor right through our back forty, not to mention the cottage lot subdivision being considered smack dab around our old swimming hole? I still wrote about bonspiels and the weather; of grayling fishing down and the Riffle and the arrival of the first swans at the Narrows but the day-to-day doings of the good people of Teslin no longer piqued my columnistic notice.

Instead, I reported - with some chagrin that I’d missed it - on the "big blue sparkin’ thing" that Bert Goodvin saw pass over our valley "going like sixty!" and turned out to be a piece of a Soviet space platform, and on the no-show of the manufactured northern lights that CBC newsman, Peter Novak, assured us would be visible at precisely 11:43 on a frigid January night, if we’d care to take a look. I cared. And stood there on the JC bridge, in the minus-30 degree temperature, with a 30 mile-an-hour wind ruffling her corrugated blue flesh, staring at the southern horizon until my eyeballs froze and my rosy-red kneecaps seized up. Then I sat on the snow-encrusted bridge abutment until other portions of my anatomy glaciated, and watched some more before calling it a night.

That little escapade received about 20 scathing inches in the January ‘91 News and did irreparable damage to Peter’s and my chumship, to say nothing of the grievous harm done to my posterior.

I wrote of hunters and huntees, the Anik B satellite TV test program, and space ships. The shenanigans at the Yukon Legislature caught flak from time to time and the Sourdough Rendezvous got equal time and attention. I wrote about the seasons, the world situation, Earth day, and the price of tea in China. But mostly, I wrote about me and mine: diapers, dogs and diets; kids, husbands and in-laws; migraine and menopause. I wrote of spring preparations, of scrubbing and painting the old barn and ‘boiling the stove" and laying in the first of the 7 tons of flour I would bake up into bread and buns and pastries during the short tourist season.

I told all, in great and gory detail, about my long-suffering family, a sort of catharsis of humour that probably saved our marriage and our business, as well as the life of at least one child who probably should have been eaten when his bones were still soft. It was, and is, the self-indulgent babbling of a woman who trod the knife-edge of daffiness, but in doing so, often struck a chord with many of her readers and they wrote and told her so. Their empathy encouraged the madness and enabled it to continue for all these years.

Writing does not come easily to me. As I’ve often mentioned, my columns are not dashed off in one single orgy of inspiration. Rather, they tend to drizzle out, word by bloody word, until I finally run out of gas, about three minutes before the deadline, and send it off, still stewing and fretting over that so- important last line. This lack of ease and spontaneity flavoured the love-hate relationship I’ve had with Lives and sometimes it required outside force to make me sit to it. One day I rose from my rump-spring recliner and felt this terrible pain in my temple. Grabbing my head, I groaned, long and piteously. My daughter, Lise, did not even look up from her book. "Just get over there and DO it!" she said harshly. Meekly, I walked to my typewriter and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the platen. Instantly, the pain was gone. Easy, it never was. Therapeutic? No doubt about it!

And today, I bring you my last bit of desperation.

My camper is loaded, I’ve laid in a supply of bug spray and sun block, and tomorrow, I’m off for parts unknown on a holiday that has been anticipated for my entire lifetime. Of course, I hadn’t planned for it to be just me and my dog. Initially, it was going to be Phil and me. Then it was Phil and me and the kids. Too soon, as the kids grew, I envisioned Phil and me and whatever kids were still home and wanted to come. After all the kids set out, ready or not, out to seek their own fortunes, we sold the lodge and once again it was just going to be Phil and me. Now, it’s just me. And Gib. I may go broke buying gas but I’m off to see the world, at last, and better late than never.

I know that my life will continue to be desperate. After all, there are some things in this old world that that do remain constant. And from time to time, when the pain in my temple gets too egregious, I will sit down and share it with you, the old adage of misery loving company, standing us all in good stead.

Thanks to my great kids for being there for me every step of the way and for always forgiving me the liberties I took at their expense. Thanks to the Whitehorse Star for their patience. Thanks to the Yukon News allowing me a forum for my desperation life. Thanks to Chris, Sherry and the staff at Mac’s Fireweed for their friendship and a brand-new work arena.

And finally, thanks to all my readers for the therapy, for the kind words and cheering cards, for the odd letter that took exception and set me straight, and for the 37 recipes on the subject of making an edible yogurt.

Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye…

Love and kisses, Ellen

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