On the northern tip of the Gaspe peninsula lies the fishing village of Madeleine River. It was there that Leslie Wagner spent her childhood with her younger brother John and her parents, Pete and Jessie Hall, the only English family in a French-Canadian town.
The Halls had once been wealthy owners of a Quebec City lumber mill powered by Montmorency Falls. During their heyday, they occupied Kent House at the top of the falls, built in 1781 for the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria. The house is now known as Chateau Montmorency and a museum dedicated to the Hall legacy occupies the top floor.
However, family conflicts and changing economic times had left them with more modest means by Leslie's time.
After front-line service in the First World War, Pete Hall returned to Quebec City, married Jessie and started a family. Leslie soon arrived and was christened Margaret Leslie Forsyth. She was six when they moved to Madeleine River, where her father managed pulp and paper operations for the next eight years.
Leslie went to private schools in New Brunswick, experiencing lonely times. Her fondest memory of that time was of father arriving by horse and sleigh to take her home for Christmas, nestled warmly under buffalo robes.
She also recalled the illicit alcohol trade during Prohibition, when cases of Canadian whisky were anchored offshore by night and gone the next day.
Leslie was 13 when Pete Hall died of heart failure. The blow was cruel, as they were very close. And, as Jessie could not cope, both children were bundled off to a maiden aunt in Quebec City for their teen years. For Leslie, this proved to be her renaissance. She made lifelong friends and, when the Second World War broke out, found work on the telephone exchange. During the 1943 Quebec Conference between Roosevelt and Churchill, she had the temerity to listen in on a high-stakes call, only to be quickly "reassigned." She also met the love of her life, Charles Wagner, who was stationed at the nearby RCAF base in Ancienne-Lorette.
They married in 1944 and enjoyed 56 event-filled years, raising a family in Lachine (a postwar Montreal suburb) and retiring in Muskoka.
Leslie was a devoted mother and grandmother, and popular with neighbourhood kids. Her open-door policy meant friends were welcome any time. She also had a strong social conscience. She helped her kids sell their old toys and comics for charity, worked tirelessly for the Anglican Church, and volunteered at the hospital so long that they finally hired her. And she was formidable with needle and thread. She made many of our clothes and, because of a bridal shop goof-up, sewed a wedding dress for a best friend's daughter from scratch in a 24-hour marathon.
Leslie loved the sweep of history and lived life to the fullest with few regrets.
Graham Wagner is Leslie's son.
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