by Petra Wall
Yvonne Sellen has always been a very independent lady but she has never missed finding time to care for others, including friends and family. “I didn’t find someone to share my life with, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying many friendships along the way. Kathryn Laidley was one of those good friends. We travelled together extensively and shared many memories,” Yvonne begins. “I also babysat most of my nieces and nephews when they were small, and grand nieces and nephews as well. Many of them learned to drive with my directions. My family has always reciprocated and been there for me too. I see my sister Georgia Robinson, who lives across the street, quite often.”
Distant relative George Abotossaway started the trading post in Little Current. He sold wood to the steamers and took in pelts, which he traded for food. He and the Anishinaabe people were later moved to Sucker Creek. Maternal grandmother was Lena Abotossaway. “I remember her but not my grandfather, Harry Abotossaway. He died when I was quite young.”
Yvonne was born on November 15, 1944 to George and Jesse Sellen in a small home near the Red Mill boarding house in Little Current. George had moved to this community from Toronto, after he met Yvonne’s mother. Their first baby, Jeannette, died at two weeks with hemophilia (a condition that causes people to bleed easily and, sometimes, with fatal results). There would be nine other children in the family: Georgia, Betty Ann, Yvonne, Ken, Doug, Leonard, Edward, Michael and Stanley.
“My dad was employed at the CPR coal docks for 25 years while my mother worked for Ellis Cleaners and also part-time for a museum near Barrie. She would visit Ontario reserves looking for artifacts for the museum. She was away a lot, looking for native beadwork, porcupine quill boxes, birch-bark canoes and needle work.”
“One of my first memories was being fished out of the Little Current harbour by my dad at age three. We lived on top of a hill and I had run down with my sisters to the fishing boats below. I rolled into the water wearing my snow suit. My sisters had to run back up the hill to get dad. He raced down and fished me out. Looking back, I couldn’t have been in over my head or I would have been pulled down by the wet snow suit.”
The Sellen family would move to successively larger homes to accommodate new siblings. “I remember the house I was born in being cold and drafty. The next house, on Wilson St., wasn’t much better. We finally stayed put when we got to 21 Draper Street, a home with three bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs. The mortgage was $3,000 and we paid a ‘sum’ every two weeks until it was all paid off, years later. We heated our house with coal, obtained at a good price from dad’s work. Another early memory, at four, was my uncle pulling two of my brothers and me, on a toboggan, up to our new house.”
“We always had pets. Darkie was a smart Border Collie who was inseparable from brother Doug. He had been the McGillis’ dog but Darkie adopted Doug and the McGillis’ agreed to part with him. We always had a cat, a budgie and pet rabbits. Dad raised rabbits to eat, but thankfully, excluded our pets. The garden kept us busy and fed. Dad also hunted for partridge or went fishing. In the spring, we would start an assembly line to clean the tub of smelt we always caught. One person removed the head, another the entrails before another sibling washed them. When we had enough for a meal, they were packaged.”
“I distinctly recall getting a fish bone stuck in my throat when I was quite small, before we moved to Draper St. I was scared but the doctor got it out. Another time, I had the flu and Dr. Bailey came to the house and put me in the hospital. My ears were so infected, I couldn’t hear. They gave me penicillin twice a day.”
Christmas was lots of fun. “We all went to the Christmas Eve service on December 24 at Holy Trinity Church and then came home. Where there was plenty of good food and lots of visiting. A big table was set up in our living room. One year, dad’s parents, Percy and Ellen Sellen came from England. Ellen made a plum pudding in a cheese cloth and she put silver coins in it. Percy had been a long-distance runner, competing with famous American First Nation racer Tommy Longboat in one race. Easter service included all the boys who regularly didn’t attend services, except at Easter. I remember the church getting a new minister, Canon Dixon, who stayed for 25 years. Rev. Aiden Armstrong is our current minister.”
“On school mornings, I would stand at the kitchen table and wistfully watch my older sisters go across the road to the public school. In 1950, at six, I finally started Grade 1. There was no Kindergarten. When the bell sounded, we ran to the Little Current Public School, all destined for different classes. At lunch, we would see each other again. Betty and Georgia were held back for one year and two years respectively, so all three of us wound up in Grade 8 at the same time.”
“I loved to read adventure stories and science fiction so much that I needed glasses at age seven. We got on the train in Little Current and headed for Toronto so my eyes could be tested at People’s Credit Jewellers. Thank goodness my parents got a one-year warranty because I managed to break the glasses seven times and got seven replacements in that year. The train got us to Espanola for groceries too, taking us in the morning and returning us that evening. We didn’t have a car and the train was free.”
“At school, I liked English, spelling and art but hated arithmetic. The teachers were nice, but our principal, Mr. Smith, was very strict. One year, the teachers checked us for nits. They mistakenly sent Georgia home and because Betty Ann and I were her sisters, we were sent home too. It turned out that Georgia had no lice or nits, just dry skin. Nevertheless, our mother had to treat all three of us for nits before they would let us come back to school. Georgia was embarrassed and she never returned to school. Betty Ann finished Grade 8 and I went on to complete Grades 9 and 10 in high school, then dropped out of Grade 11 when I was faced with algebra, French and Latin.”
Summer vacations often found the family travelling. “Since dad worked for the CPR, we would get rail passes for the family.” One year, Yvonne, then 20, Doug and Stan accompanied their parents on a special train trip to Vancouver. “We got there on the morning of the fourth day, stayed two days in Vancouver in a motel, walked as much as we could and then returned home.”
There was a lot of beautiful scenery along the way. “Heading east from Banff, Alberta, we saw moose and deer near the tracks. I remember one spiral pass that had tracks coming out of a tunnel, curving down the mountain below us. The Fraser River looked like a moving ribbon below. The mountains were spectacular, especially Cathedral Mountain, which really looked like a fancy European church.”
“We were still moving through the peaks when my brother and I found a half-door left open at the end of our car. We both leaned over and saw the ground outside as the train sped by. Suddenly, we were jerked back by our mother who was afraid of heights and felt this was not a safe option. When the train stopped, mother would get off so she could buy food for sandwiches; a less-expensive alternative to the elegant dining offered on the train.”
“When my mother was away for work, I was responsible for my little brother Stanley, born late in my mother’s life.” Jesse was one of Dr. Bailey’s first patients and the doctor knew Jesse only called for emergencies so staff would respond quickly. This time it was not an emergency. She was 45 but she suspected she was pregnant. Dr. Bailey felt that, at her age, it might be a tumor. Jesse insisted she was pregnant and she was right. After Stanley was born, he was jokingly referred to as a ‘walking tumour’ for a short while.
After high school, Yvonne worked at Okeechobee Lodge, washing dishes with her cousin Anita Dieter. “I liked the work but Anita didn’t and when she quit I had to quit too, because the new girl they hired wanted to work with her own sister.” Yvonne’s next job was at the Anchor Inn owned at the time by Romeo and Rachel Charrette. She cleaned rooms until she was promoted to short-order cook. “Rachel was an artist and, after hours, I took art classes from Rachel at the public school. Landscapes were my favourite.” Ivan Wheale taught some classes too.
Her interest in food preparation got her work at the Shaftsbury Inn, cooking for owner Linda Kelly and also at Garry Elliot’s restaurant where she stayed for 15 years. From time to time she would fill in shifts for the VON, cleaning homes as well. “The VON offered a three-months training program for 15 people to become PSWs and I decided to take it. I started to work for them during the day and even at night, staying with people who just needed someone else to be in the house.”
“I was in the home from eight at night to eight in the morning for eight years, with one older gentleman who was deaf, just making sure he got to bed and up again in the morning. There was an elderly bed-ridden lady who needed the same service, later.” For a while, Yvonne was working part time for the VON, part-time for Garry’s Restaurant and she also stayed with a senior at night. It was a hectic schedule but Yvonne went even further. In her spare time, she researched a lot of the medical conditions she was encountering at work, to better-understand them.
Later in her career, Yvonne was employed at the TLC in Little Current on weekends so the owner could take a break from Thursday night to Saturday night. They had six bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs for people who could cope with the stairs. “I helped take care of their eight clients.” Linda, the owner, was sorry when Yvonne retired.
Her love for reading encouraged Yvonne to become a Lay Reader, one of four, at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. “I am a ‘cradle Anglican’” she offers, smiling. “My mum was in the choir before I was born and I joined her as soon as I was old enough. I love to do readings for the congregation and lead prayers.” Yvonne is also the president of the Altar Guild. “I make up schedules for all four Lay Readers and assist the minister by helping with the wine and the bread for Communion. I also help with preparation of the altar adding applicable colours, ‘green’ at present. The Pentecostal services are red, Advent, purple, and white for Christmas, weddings, baptisms and saints days.”
“I spent 45 years of my life on Draper Street, first as a child and finally as a caretaker for my parents, my siblings, nephews and nieces. Being single, I had a flexible schedule and didn’t have to worry that I was upsetting anyone. My father passed away in 1976 and my mother in 1981. Brother Stan moved out to be with his girlfriend soon after mother died. He has five children now and works at Parkland Crematorium in Sudbury where he has had to deal with the cremation of some of our relatives. Understandably, that was quite difficult.”
Brother Ed has two children and lives in M’Chigeeng where he works for a roofing company. Betty Ann has three children and lives in Thunder Bay. She remarried, but sadly, her second husband died of a heart attack while fixing his car in their driveway. Georgia’s husband worked for Hydro One. He died two years ago. Ken has one child. He is retired from INCO and lives in Kitchener where he still referees hockey games. Doug has three children but has had a stroke and lives in a long term care facility in Edmonton. Leonard has two children and lives in Picton. Before he retired, he worked for Blacksone, a company that makes car radiators, in London.
Michael has three children. He was in the army for a while. Afterwards, he laid tile for Red Bow and then he worked for the Sucker Creek fish farm. “Michael went through the ice in his snowmobile once. Luckily, he had on a flotation suit and someone saw him go in. They called the Sucker Creek Fire Department that pulled him out. Unfortunately, the hypothermia that resulted may have caused him a lot of health issues over the years.”
Yvonne and her friend Kathryn Laidley like to visit the casinos occasionally where Yvonne limits herself to $40. The two have taken a bus tour to Toronto to see plays like ‘Dirty Dancing’ and have visited the Thousand Islands, Newfoundland and Quebec City. “I took several cruises by myself to see San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Cuba and the Panama Canal. In the Panama Canal, three small tugs on each side of the big boat pulled us through the very narrow canal, showing us some spectacular scenery.”
On a Regent Cruise, she met a new friend, Delphia Clark. Regent had offered two single ladies a double room at the same price as a couple taking a double room. “We explored the eastern Caribbean, St. Thomas, and San Juan together. In the Barbados, we took a submarine excursion on the Atlantis, earning our ‘submariner’ badges. Delphia later moved to Florida and we stayed good friends. Two years ago, I went on a 10-day cruise on the Emerald Princess. It was a huge ship with a total of 4,077 passengers and crew.”
About a year ago, Yvonne developed cancer of the bone marrow, called ‘multiple myeloma.’ “It started with a spell of headaches that lasted six weeks. Oncologist Dr. Gill did a bone biopsy which found a three-centimeter mass at the base of the brain. Radiation and chemotherapy were followed with steroids. “I could access some of the treatment in our local hospital in Mindemoya but more treatments were needed in Sudbury too.”
Dr. Hurst, a stem-cell specialist in Sudbury, is doing some advanced treatment. “In Ottawa, they took my own stem cells. The blood was removed from one arm, stem cells separated and the blood put back into my other arm. Then they cleansed the stem cells, froze them, and reintroduced them to my system to replace the white blood cells killed by the cancer. First, they had to reduce my immunity down to nothing, so the stem cells would not be destroyed. To achieve that, I was given a strong dose of chemotherapy and I had to spend three weeks in isolation so I couldn’t pick up any pathogens.”
“Unfortunately, this chemical concoction burned my esophagus and I had to live on pureed foods and Ensure for two months. I lost 54 pounds and went from size 16 to size 14. I weigh 146 pounds now,” she explained. This was a mixed blessing. “The weight loss was fine but the reason for it wasn’t so good. I moved into this apartment beside the Manor a few years ago, when I realized I might need more help. Not too long ago, I passed out while taking a shower and woke up lying in the floor of my tub. Now, I get help with bathing and with cleaning my apartment. Next Monday I will have cataract surgery on my right eye.”
“I have never regretted being single. I maintain my independence and make all my own decisions. I play euchre Monday afternoon with Shirley Viney and Gail Leeson at the Sheguiandah Hall. Tuesdays, I play at AOK with Glenda Hodder. Wednesdays, I am playing at the Legion. I have also been to the Anishnaabe Spiritual Center a few times to enjoy story-sharing and circle dancing as part of a ‘Seeds of Joy’ Retreat.”
“My favourite time of the year is summer. I have always loved swimming in the park. Before I would return home, up the big hill, I would always dive deep into the colder water to cool down. These days, for a swim, I can visit my friend Patricia (Cian) Strickland at her Lake Kagawong cottage. It’s warmer there than the North Channel. I appreciate warmer water now.”
“I have never drunk alcohol so I don’t miss it. I started smoking at 14 and quit 30 years later using adverse therapy techniques of ‘Success International.’ That decision to quit came when I couldn’t ride my bike uphill without losing my breath. I don’t miss smoking either. What do I still want to do? I still would like to do more painting, if I get a chance.”
“I love Manitoulin. I wouldn’t live anyplace else. I think Island folk might consider putting themselves into a tourist mindset and really see the beauty of this place with new eyes. Many of us don’t seem to appreciate the magnificence of this place, the quiet, the delightful birds that can break the silence, the ever-changing landscape of boats, and the surrounding water.”
“Friendly people make this place extra-special. People I have met over the years through work, like Linda Risotto of TLC, Mary Buie and Pat Strickland in my cancer support group, Rachel Charette and Ivan Wheale from painting classes. I am happy with my life. When I look out my window, I see the area I grew up in. I see the water, the boats and the wildlife. It’s absolutely perfect for me.”