Ellery Littleton and Jock McKeen remember Leslie Alexander, a long-time friend of The Haven, who passed away on December 30, 2016.
Ellery Littleton writes:
Leslie Alexander and I were friends for over 60 years. We first met in September of 1954, each of us 13 years old, in our grade seven home room class in the newly-built high school in Port Alberni. We were seated next to each other, and immediately attracted the evil eye of our teacher because we got into a giggling fit over the title of our just-received grammar text “English Fundamentals” – which Leslie called “English Fun for Mentals.” We spent the next fifteen minutes of our brand-new relationship standing outside in the hall, whispering and feeling awkward, before being re-admitted to the classroom.
Leslie and I were members of the same social group in school, in many of the same classes, going to dances and house parties together, going out to “the lake” for beach parties and swimming, graduating in 1959. She was always a better student than I was (except perhaps in English, where we were about equal) and was an outstanding French student. French became one of her life passions, and she was busy taking classes in French right up until a few months before her death. Leslie and I “went steady” for a few weeks in 1956, and I vividly remember jiving with her in the living room of her parents’ house to “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis, kissing her goodnight on the front porch in a cold and frosty Port Alberni evening.
After graduating from high school, Leslie moved to Vancouver to attend UBC, and I moved to Victoria. We lost touch with each other for a few years, then re-engaged back in Port Alberni in the early 1970s, where I was teaching high school, and she was visiting family: her father, who was a well-known local doctor; her mother a cultured woman who played the piano; and her younger brother. They lived in a fine big house overlooking downtown Port Alberni, and to me, a country kid who lived in the rural outback, they seemed like aristocrats. My father was a logger and my mother a teacher, and thanks to her, I did grow up loving reading and listening to CBC radio (one of the many interests Leslie and I shared).
There is so much to be told about Leslie and her complex, busy, demanding, life in Vancouver over 50 years that I can only offer a few brief comments here. She made many close loving friends, most of them remarkable, accomplished women, several of whom were (and are) key figures in the history of The Haven. Like all of us, Leslie went through a series of large life experiences – all the familiar things that come to us in a life – marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, disappointments and triumphs, large and small. The whole nine yards and then some.
Leslie was cultured, literate, witty, sexy and sophisticated, a true intellectual who was passionate about learning and teaching and loved discussing ideas. She was a loyal and generous companion, loving and compassionate. Her friends will always remember her big infectious belly laugh, her smart, sharply rendered observations, her wonderful sense of humor. She was so much fun to be around and had an amazingly wide range of interests and passions – books, movies, concerts, the theater, the New Yorker, cooking, dining out in fine restaurants, fabulous trips to Europe (France in particular). For a small person (she was just over five feet tall) Leslie lived large, with style and panache.
She continued to do her personal growth work with diligence right through her life, and was deeply committed to a women’s group she belonged to for 20 years, a group guided by Tracy Goode, which included her dear friends Ellen Shapiro, Nicola Aimee and Linda Nicholls.
Leslie was also a superb therapist, counsellor and group leader who became very close to Ben and Jock and other founding figures at The Haven through the 80s and 90s (Linda Nicholls, for instance, and Judy Sellner) and did a prodigious amount of work on herself at The Haven over the years. During her long career as a counsellor, she assisted many teachers’ groups to sort out their relationship issues at schools throughout the province. She talked the talk and walked the walk, and was also a wonderful mentor, advisor and mother figure to a host of students in the big high school where she worked in Surrey for 25 years or so. She had a special interest in the welfare of young Indo-Canadian women and helped many of them cope with the challenges they faced in finding themselves in their families and in society.
What I recall most vividly in these early days of grieving for Leslie are the sparkling memories of dancing together in high school and swimming in the lake, dining out in Vancouver and Victoria, visiting in our various homes, her relationship with my wife Mary Helen (which blossomed beautifully over the last 30 years), our regular summer cabin rentals on Sproat Lake in the Alberni Valley, the last one being just this past August. She always brought seven bottles of fine wine, instead of just two, and a half dozen exotic cheeses and breads. As always, when in Port Alberni, Leslie took time for leisurely visits with Helen Weaver (now in her 90s) and her daughter Nancy Blair, in both their lovely homes on Sproat Lake. Port Alberni girls all, with lifelong associations with “the lake” – the beautiful oasis on the outskirts of town.
And most particularly, I remember my great happiness for her 12 years ago when she finally met Michael (pictured with Leslie above), the man she should have met long ago, who was gentle, sensitive, patient, and ever so appreciative of her many gifts and infinitely accepting of her handful of foibles. He truly was the love of her life, and she was so happy. For such a brief period. Michael died of a heart attack on their last trip to France, a few years ago. And Leslie’s big heart – both sturdy and fragile – was once again broken.
Leslie’s many friends, who have rallied around so lovingly since her death, will know the details of this final romantic chapter of her life, and all the other chapters. We will all be talking about her, and “remembering when” for years to come.
Leslie and I exchanged letters on our 70th birthdays, hers three months before mine. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the one I wrote to her. But I do have the one she wrote to me, in her immaculate, elegant handwriting. In closing, I would like to offer a few quotes from that letter. My purpose in presenting these comments is not to talk about myself, but rather to show what a sensitive and eloquent writer she was (she super-charged several of my journal-writing programs at The Haven with her amazing writing and dramatic readings) and how incredibly lucky I was to have been her friend for so long. Leslie’s unique voice comes through clearly in this brief excerpt, and I want you all to have a chance to hear it.
My dear Ellery,
We go way back. Way back. Back to the days when high school began in grade seven … when girls never said, maybe never even thought the “f” word. I only heard it twice: once, when my father hurled it at my mother as he slammed out of the house, and I who was dutifully practicing the piano at the time was transfixed and totally shocked. (Oh, and no one said “totally” either). The other time I heard the “f” word was when you said it, Ellery, in grade seven. You held court as resident teller of dirty jokes, delivered sotto voce, to the lucky ones near you in the classroom. When you told those stories you definitely had my attention.
Our contacts weren’t as frequent as I sometimes wanted them to be until a couple of decades or so ago, but when I got sick recently your friendship burned with a renewed flame. And you soothed my craziness with compassion, humor and literary and photographic gifts of your own making. And thank you so much for bringing me into relationship with Mary Helen. She is a gem and you are a very lucky man indeed to be together with her.
We go way back Ellery, but we go way deep too. These have been the soul-making years, these last ones, and you have come through solidly, fully and whole-heartedly. I am so moved in the privilege of our friendship. We are living records of each other’s existence. We are, also, I believe, loving records of each other’s existence.
With love, Leslie
Jock McKeen writes:
Leslie was remarkable, singular. And, after all, what else could any of us wish for as an accomplishment, as a legacy from a life well lived?
She was one of the most intelligent, dedicated people I have met thus far. She was also funny, a nuanced funny: sometimes raucous and irreverent, sometimes acerbic, sometimes quietly, understatedly ironic. Always with Leslie was a vein of sadness that seemed to run through the riverbed of her being. She appeared always to be seeking for more, for herself, for her friends and loved ones, for the world. In this search, it seemed she rarely rested; there was always a quality of tension that was stimulating to be near, but likely always difficult for her to live.
She suffered as her health declined in recent years. She didn’t complain much; she just seemed to scowl a little, growl a little, and then get on with it. Admirable.
She was so earnest, so hard on herself, so intense in her studies of French and food and friends. She put her whole self into her keen interests, and often blended them. She loved people, and she loved gardening; so, she would visit with her loved ones while she gardened, inviting them to take part. She loved a lot of people; this large group included the younger people who continued to come to her for warmth, sage advice and practical suggestions about life and loving, as well as more seasoned travelers coping with ever-deepening themes of disappointment and despair. She would share in others’ sadness, desperation, diffidence, insecurity; and somehow in this, there was some ease for the other, and for Leslie. She seemed to treat her teachers, her students, and her peers all with the same penetrating focus, often putting someone else before herself. When she laid a table of appetizers, it was a full and hearty meal. When she dug into a conversation, the air seemed to light up from the heat of the discourse she invited, even provoked. And when someone wanted a listening ear, she was ready to listen, to be, as a friend, with a friend whom she cherished.
We, her friends, will miss her, while feeling the relief to know that she is now hopefully, finally at rest, without pain.