Helen Jane Leslie: Wife. Mother. Friend. Armchair economist. Born Jan. 13, 1933, in Montreal; died: July 11, 2022, in Ottawa, of an acute illness following a bout of COVID-19, aged 89.
Helen Jane Claxton was the only daughter of a successful but alcoholic father and a strong-willed mother. Nicknamed “Boo” by her father, who used to play peek-a-boo with her as infant, she could not cope with confrontation or conflict of any sort. To Boo, belonging and appearance were everything. Transparency and directness? Well, they were best avoided.
Ever so slight, Boo was like a tiny, delicate bird and worked the card she was dealt fabulously, playing to her fragility and femininity. Even in her late 80s, hooked up to an oxygen tank, she was always fashionably attired. Before social events she would ask her son-in-law if she looked sexy, to which he responded: “Of course, Boo.”
After graduating from McGill University with a degree in economics, she moved back to Ottawa, where she worked as an intelligence analyst, specializing in Russian economics. She met Teddy Leslie, a decorated veteran, on the steps of the National Defence Headquarters. They met again at a dance, where he asked Boo on a date. Their marriage brought together two stalwart Liberal families. Notable wedding guests in 1957 included the Governor-General and the Prime Minister.
Boo settled into married life with brio and quickly had three children: Andrew, Helen Anne and Brooke. While a loving and caring mother, Boo was able to leave the day-to-day care of her children to others to focus on supporting her husband’s career. With a lifelong passion following international affairs and her warm, outgoing persona, she was an invaluable asset to her husband. The family relocated frequently around the world.
But the pressures of a peripatetic lifestyle took a toll. When the family lived in Paris, Boo disappeared for a stretch. Years later, she told Helen Anne that she’d spent time at the Allan Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Montreal. During this hiatus, her daughter met a friend of her father’s, a chain-smoking French lady, impeccably dressed from head to toe. Intuitively, young Helen kicked up a heck of a fuss, so much so the woman promptly vanished, never to be seen again.
Following this retreat, Boo returned to Paris where the couple resumed their warm, loving relationship. A fourth and final child, Jennifer, was added to the mix. Content to live by convention and motivated by kindness, Boo set very few parameters for her children; they were simply expected to fall into line and she was mystified if they didn’t.
Teddy’s retirement saw the family relocate one last time to Ottawa. Life changed considerably. When she was widowed at 46, Boo was left alone to manage four children, two still in grade school.
In the years that followed Boo kept busy, focusing on her family and travelling frequently to see friends. Her love of good white wine was legendary; she literally sparkled after a glass, holding court and engaging in wide-ranging, erudite conversations. She furthered her interest in Russian studies by taking courses at Carleton University. She volunteered at the Prime Minister’s Office drafting correspondence and was an active participant in her church community.
As grandchildren arrived, she spent many happy summers surrounded by them at her cottage in the Laurentians. She never met a family crisis she didn’t like and delighted in being the conduit for breaking family news. One granddaughter, Helen (Mary), tells the story of how she called her grandmother first to announce her engagement. Hanging up the phone, she reached out to her father only to find that Boo had beaten her to the punch!
Despite serious health challenges, Boo remained independent, living on her own, almost to the end, and continued to relish social events. She contracted COVID-19 following an extended family gathering at the cottage, passing away from complications of an underlying health condition.
What must have been much to her chagrin, she was late to her own celebration of life due to a mix-up in the delivery times of her ashes – but she finally made it to her last party.
Helen Anne Leslie is Helen Jane’s daughter.
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