My father’s story

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My father Forbes Leslie died on Christmas day 2019. Here is the words about him my mother, sister and I spoke at the Celebration of Life on Jan. 25:

Hi there. I’m Colin; Forbes’ son.

Forbes died exactly one month ago today. As folks have reached out offering condolences a few things people said have really stuck in my mind:

  • My friend Michael who used to work with me at the magazine I work at in Toronto said: “I’ve lost both my parents over the past few years, and I just try to keep them alive in my memories when I can, talk about them often, and remember the many wonderful years they were in my life.”

That’s what today is about. Talking about and remembering that Forbes had an influence on our lives.

Forbes changed the name he went by two times in his life. He was born Leslie Forbes Davie but changed it to David Forbes Leslie (and ‘Leslie’ was his mother’s maiden name).

So we are going to talk about Forbes’ life in three sections:

  • “A boy named Leslie” – Early years (Leith, my mother)
  • “A man named David” – Middle years (Colin)
  • “A friend named Forbes” – Later years (Alison, my sister)

As I mentioned, there were lots of condolences that came in but I’m just going to read one from our friend Shari Ulrich, the folk singer of Pied Pumpkin and other bands. There was a headshot of Forbes taken recently on the online memorial page. Shari wrote:

“Oh, that photo is SO Forbes – that expression – those eyes – I see so much of Colin and Allison as well. He lived his life uncommonly well, and though for someone like Forbes it will always seem to soon, he left in the dignified way he lived. I’ve known him and Leith and Colin & Allison as long as I’ve lived in Canada – starting in 1972 when we all lived together in Gibsons. I have HUGE respect for how the family has all remained so supportive of one another, embracing all that comes their way. So much love to you all.”

With that, we go to my mother Leith for Forbes’ early years….

 

Leith: EARLY YEARS

Forbes Memorial Speech- early life

Leslie Forbes Davie was born in Aberdeen Scotland in 1932.

Parents-George Forbes Davie of Aberdeen hope and Harriet Winnifred Leslie of Fyfe. Forbes’ father read Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, his mother a secretary and an avid tennis player.

Although his first name was Leslie in these young years -I will use Forbes to be clearer.

It is known that pre-war and war-child life was difficult for many of Britain’s children.  Forbes has told some stories about reading many books while hiding in bomb shelters. And especially a memory of seeing a plane drop a bomb and a neighbours house,  sheared in half “ like a doll’s house”.

But in addition to that backdrop, his family life was far from supportive. His father had from the beginning, a severe drinking problem and was very abusive. His mother distant and inattentive.  In one of his diary notes I read only recently, he wrote that he couldn’t think of a happy day in his younger life.

His Grandmother became his only source of comfort and nurturing and he often ran away from home to be with her when he could. He had some interests that were of help in these times. He was a great reader and he excelled at table tennis -he toured and played in many tournaments.

Clearly he somehow had will, resilience and courage which was a help to him throughout his life. This childhood was never talked about until the later years and even then very little. Sometimes when we were with Logan and his friends, I would see this look of wistful, poignant amazement, as he would observe Logan and friends having a reasonably normal child hood, with such wonder. And he would say how happy he was for Logan.

And now I would wish, that I and others in his life,  might have known and understood earlier, the bleakness of his childhood.

 In his late teens he was trained as a chef and began saving money to immigrate. He was clear that he needed to leave his past behind and forge a new self, thinking that in a new place, Canada, he could” reinvent himself” and never look back. To this end he decided to mark this decision by formally changing his name and became David Forbes Leslie.

He arrived in Canada in April 1956 at age 24. He made  his way to Calgary and found a job in Banff cooking for a Parks Canada crew and with the CPR in the dining car. He learned that as an adult student he could finish his high school education. He did this quickly and with ease and not only gained the diploma but a new sense of himself as bright and able to do well scholastically.

 He set his sites on University which in those days in AB meant Edmonton, and enrolled in the BCommerce program. He knew how to live frugally and continued his path through University by working summer jobs and saving. 

In 1958/59 we met at the University as part of a group of students who were good friends. I was attending university in my first year BSc. in Nursing.

As well as education, he  was very focussed on travelling and seeing the world, so worked hard several summers on the DEW line to support both school and his plan to travel around the world. He took a year off University in 1960 and indeed over 6 months period starting in Japan and saw a large part of the world on very little money. When he returned, we became engaged. 

Having completed his commerce degree decided he wanted to study law and started his first year at UofA

We were married in Sept 1962 and moved to Vancouver for 2nd year law at UBC while  I worked on a children’s ward at Vancouver General Hospital. His travel bug was still active and we saved enough money to  go to Europe that summer- before settling down to children etc.

Gratefully this we did this, the summer of 1963. Europe on less than $5 a day. We hitched hiked across the northern states to catch the Homeric ship to Southampton,  and proceeded to hostel/ backpack/ hitchhike for 4 months, through Europe as far as Istanbul and back to UK. We ran out of money in England 3 weeks before our prebooked return flight.  We both found jobs for those 3 weeks!

October 1964  Colin was born ! Forbes was articling in law, and on  completion, took short job experiences both Terrace and Prince George.  Very invigorating experiences- we loved the North but returned to Vancouver and Alison was born!

Forbes opened a Vancouver law practice with a weekend office in Gibsons Landing. This was 1967/68. This was the time of “ hippy” Vancouver! At least in Kitsilano.

In “spare “ time he became the lawyer for the “committee to aid conscientious war objectors” – draft dodgers and deserters. The safe house was close by and we would have for a few days sometimes, people camped in our living room.

Much talk among many friends about the virtues of living communally. With another family we purchased 33 acres in Gibson’s Landing, which we named Delphi and planned to start building a  larger community with the hope of thriving and learning about how to live a more sustainable life and share resources. In 1969/70 we moved to Gibson’s into a trailer next to an existing house where our friends lived. As we expanded to include more people David the lawyer, had the good idea of the property being owned as a company and people could buy shares. We built houses,  barns, cleared land for a beautiful garden, had goats, cow, chickens, pigs at various points. I started an alternative school for our kids and neighbouring kids. Forbes employed some people in his law office, where he worked partime. Yetta started a hand block printed clothing business and began the idea of selling at a local market which we started. ( this was the beginning of local craft markets in BC as far as we know)  We shared, cooking, building, gardening, animal care, child care. Of course there was the proverbial weekly meeting where everything could be put on the agenda and discussed endlessly. I’m sure you can only imagine the intensity and difficulties of such a human sharing experiment. Was it successful. No, if you see success as long time period. After several years people began to disperse and go their different ways with the expected angst and repercussions. I think Shari put it best looking back in later years- it was like being in an intense pressure cooker of learning practical skills, how to be and work with others and huge personal growth. We did appear to all burst out of that time,  to go our separate ways, finding what we really wanted to do and excelling at that. Eg. Shari and Mike as musicians, Yetta started BC craft movement with Circle Craft Co op, Gay became a farmer, I jumped into teaching- alternative education.

Again looking back this was really not “Hippy life” as portrayed in the media or overtime,  mindlessly simplified and even laughed about. There was a committed social/ political purpose and many communities like ours were on the forefront of things we now take for granted. Organic gardening and food, craft markets, alternative education ideas, recycling, shared economy ideas.

 There were losses of course- a big one being our marriage. I moved to Victoria with the Colin and Alison. Forbes lived on the land for several more years with other people but never really the same kind of community.

Before Colin talks about Forbes in his middle years I want to say something more personal – from this place of a long backward look.

Knowing what we now know of his youth, so many things become much more understandable and with time I can forgive the many hurts and misunderstandings of those middle years.

 No wonder this person to whom so little was given as a child and youth, was so intense, driven, (“Forbsing ahead”). So   courageous sometimes impulsive to points he would regret. But resilient and capable of picking himself up and with great will, start anew. I have always admired this will, courage, even tempered good humour, just basic kindness.

 I wonder. How do 2  people find each other.  Me- the child of a gentle respectful upbringing, with the ground safe under me. Incredibly curious and trusting in the good will of people. (sometimes to my great regret and downfall) A Prairie,  naive, 195Os upbringing. But with my own committed determination, grounded in place, practical courage. So different. Both of us swept into the milieu of the west coast 60’s.

People often wonder, how did we manage to be such good friends in our latter years since that isn’t necessarily a common thing after a painful divorce. I do see this as the luck of who we each were- both committed to personal growth, open to change, willing to  finally listen and see each other. Even early on we were both able to see how important it was to our children to know both of us and preferably see us getting along.

Children and grandchildren are  huge catalysts if ground is ready. Many people just don’t have the luck part. And by saying luck I do not understate the hard work that we did.

In the Victoria years that Ali will talk about,   Forbes chose to move to Victoria and this allowed close interacting in daily ways. Grandpareting together, xmas,  bdays, the big things and the little things. A joy to be good friends who’ve known each other for such a long time.

I want to give much honour and gratitude here for Bruce Mc Allister my husband/friend-  now 40/years. Such amazing support of me the person, and importantly also me the mom and grandmother.  So valuable that we support each other in these roles that existed before our time together. Also very grateful for his connection with Forbes as a friend. ( Bruce loves to fly fish and Forbes loved eating them.)

Thanks to Bruce’s family – the Mc Allisters all- his children and their families, his sibs, his mom, for taking us on- such a small family – into  their welcoming bigger midst. You always kindly included Forbes and Nan these last years- Christmas’, birthdays- those big family events. Forbes loved that. Thank you.

Forbes- doing this life arc with our friends and neighbours   allows me to honour your amazing varied life. You did settle within yourself finally- your past – with forgiveness and acceptance of that kind, sensitive, child you were. I think I could see  you rest more peacefully in these last years, and you accepted your many varied life accomplishments and personal maturity.

Your life was not the usual “well trodden path” and by circumstance,  neither was mine. Now I can feel grateful for that.

 

Colin: MIDDLE YEARS

About eight years ago, I spent some time talking to my father Forbes and taking down his life story and so much of what we have here comes from that

I’ve got the middle years. There were I think searching years in many ways for Forbes. 

In the winter of 1971/72, he put a camper on the back of a truck and went down to Mexico with Barb but that relationship ended and early in 1972 he started a relationship with another woman named Krin and went back to Mexico and travelled around for six months. He spent “the time smoking dope and reading (Carlos Castenada and others) and contemplating life.”

Anyhow, by the summer of 1972 he returned to Canada and came to Victoria where Leith and us kids were living. He said to me that time he felt that Leith could see “he had changed a lot during his sabbatical in Mexico. He was back in Canada at age 40 and didn’t know what to do with himself.” 

As my mom told you he’d come to Canada without a high school degree and a decade later he was a lawyer. But at that time in 1972, he said he didn’t feel like doing anything. The relationship with Krin wound down. He drove to Merritt, B.C. and thought about living there but decided not to. 

Went back to the commune. Forbes began the strata title plan for Delphi in 1975 and did a bit of duty counsel work but was less interested in the law at this point. (Strata title would mean people would own part of the land as individuals and the rest would be owned as a group.)

By 1980, the commune was down to six people including Forbes, Darwin, Michael and a few others. He’d spend part of his time in Vancouver on W. 7th and he met Shilan in the city. 

In 1980 or so, he finished the strata-title but the real estate market collapsed at this point. No one wanted to buy the stata-title lots. He was “pissed off” and disillusioned by the inflation and the economic problems and blamed the government. “What is the point of government if they can’t look after that?” He married Shilan and moved to Vancouver and then to Japan and started to teach English and tried to set up an organic food import-export business. He earned about $1,000 US a month for teaching and it cost about $500 US to live.

 By 1981: Realized business idea wouldn’t work and Shilan joined him. He went on to Taiwan for a couple of months and then Bangkok and then U.K.

By 1982 Nov.: Back in Vancouver. He declared bankruptcy (a result of which he could no longer practise law) and lived on W. 11th. Until 1987 or so his income came from welfare, extra work, renovation work and he was also involved with cable television a bit.

 1987: Moved to Cawston, B.C. with Shilan where she continued her social work studies. Became involved with the Green Party and had a number of posts over time (executive secretary, ran federally and provincially for the party). Started writing Forming Tribalized Communities (a theory on social structure book) which took about eight years to complete. He also worked in the orchard during this period and sold organic apples.

Things ended with Shilan in 1993. He moved to Kelowna sometime after that and continued his mediation work. He really started gardening then and picked tennis back up. And he was part of a men’s group that was very important to him.

In the early 2000s he moved to Victoria and my sister will cover that. 

Part of the middle years were a period of searching and some disillusion for Forbes but there were things that he did that mattered to him: the book he wrote, working with organic growers and his work as a mediator as a way to solve disputes without the law. And his passion for travel remained: He took Alison and I to Scotland one summer around 1981 or so. 

*

Another condolence note that stuck with me is: A physician friend of mine said: “The death of a parent is such a minefield of complex emotions. Sometimes relief is a big looming emotion that’s difficult to feel comfortable with but it sounds as though your father managed to avoid becoming the frail person he feared — which is a huge relief.”

Forbes was declining physically and mentally in the last few years and his preferred way to go would have been dying on the tennis court so a relatively short hospital stay is about as close as one can get to that.

I feel really blessed—both to be part of this family and with all of you right now and to have this precious moment of now that we’re sharing right now. And I was also really blessed by this period of Forbes being in Victoria when I could spend time with him, going for walks on the grey pebble beaches around the city. 

It helps me as I at 55 go through my own process of aging. I remember asking Forbes how he remembered parts of that process. He said when he was 40 he felt like his mind was like a steel trap—it just went. But by the time he was in his 50s he noticed that his mind was slowing down but it was oh-so-gradual.

The other thing that we talked about was the influence of sex and romantic desire. That really moves men at some points in their lives. It certainly has heavily influenced me at times. If I recall, when I interviewed Forbes, he ended up moving from Toronto to Calgary shortly after coming to Canada partly because he’d met a nice girl from Calgary in Toronto (nothing came of it but things like that can have a huge influence in our lives.)

My father was deeply romantic about his connection with women. Maybe after there not being much warmth in his childhood he drew a great deal of warmth and connection from relationships with women.

*

My mother asked me what what traits I see in myself from him. 

Certainly one thing I hope to have as I age is: Forbes was not a grumpy old man. He was a very sweet man in his old age. Very grateful. So good natured and mostly philosophical about the losses of aging. 

In fact, he could be quite forceful but through his life he was not ill natured. 

As to what I see in myself from Forbes: 

  • I have mannerisms a lot like him. 
  • A love of the outdoors and hiking.
  • And a philosophical way of looking at things – what is this world I’m in about? 

We had a green or natural burial for Forbes at Royal Oak. I read this from the traditional British Isles Burial Service (altered slightly:) 

‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. 

‘We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’

So I’ll end by saying:

You’ll be missed Forbes—and remembered….

 

Alison: LATER YEARS

Alison gave a heartfelt speech about the years that Forbes lived in Victoria. She did it off the cuff from some handwritten notes but she talked about things she learned from Forbes (how to live frugally) and that she appreciated how much he was willing to rely on her ability to organize things in his final years. She also noted he was more sentimental than she expected: he didn’t keep much in wife but among his things she found a picture she’d drawn when she was about four on the back of his legal office stationary. 

 

3 Comments

  1. Colin I so enjoyed reading all of this, and hearing it on Saturday, I wonder who the Darwin was who lived on the commune with them…I think the last 60 years your Mum, Dad and I “almost met” so Many times, our lives are similar…I am happy we finally did, it was lovely to know Forbes, wish it had been more……thank you Leith, Colin,Alison and Logan.

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