tofino profile - islay macleod

Tofino Profile: Islay Macleod

by Shirley Langer


If you don’t already know Islay (pronounced I-lay), you must wonder, Who is that woman? every time you see her sailing through town. Tall and stately, usually wearing a bright yellow beret and colours that demand attention, she’s a feature. Entering Islay’s apartment, the first thing you notice are all her many and varied hats, a fashion item she obviously adores. Islay is not wishy-washy about anything, which makes our interview time stimulating, not to mention a hoot. While she busies herself preparing tea and promised homemade goodies, I browse around the living room. Books, lots of them, biographies and serious reading: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, for example. No Great Mischief, a prize-winning novel, lies in the current reading pile. There are shelves of classical music tapes; the radio is tuned to classical music. Everywhere sits and hangs the accumulated belongings gathered and received over a lifetime, including photographs of dog friends of hers—Islay is a great friend of dogs. A pretty, young brunette about age 18, hair bobbed in the fashion of the day, smiles out from a framed photograph. The young Islay.

Soon we sit down to tea, accompanied by homemade scones—her mother’s recipe—her own blackberry jam, and a variety of homemade loaves. We dig into the sweets and the conversation, which soon reveals an irreverent person with a wicked sense of humour. At some point I ask if she’s religious. “Not religious,” she answers, “but spiritual, yes. Our family was Highland Free Presbyterian. Very religious. We were not allowed out of the house on Sunday and were obliged to read the Bible in Gaelic every Sunday afternoon.” “When did you cease to be religious?” I ask, and she replies without hesitation, “The day I got married.” I suspect that Islay reversed a lot of things that were imposed when she was young.

She married a sea-faring man in 1947, the third mate on CPR boat The Maquinna that delivered people and supplies to Tofino before the road connected us overland. She then lived away from Tofino for years. On the subject of marriage, she said she tried to imitate her mother’s style—lavender among the sheets and a little starch in the pillowcases to resist the hair oil men wore in those days—but she found it all too demanding. Divorce happened. Why? Islay is quiet for a pregnant moment before replying. “Exhaustion—physical and emotional exhaustion. He was a sea-faring man. Not home very much.” She pauses again, then adds a quote from the film Zorba the Greek on marriage —“... husband, children, the full catastrophe.”

In 1987, Islay moved back to Tofino. It was like a salmon returning to its home stream, she says. The family home had been close to the shore in the space between the current House of Himwitsa and Paddlers Inn. She describes how much she enjoyed working as a young woman in Elkington’s Store, a general store built on pilings on the government wharf where Tofino Air now stands. She recalls that on hot days, she would go into the cooler and lean up against great sides of beef to cool off. She still loves Tofino, and not just because she is nostalgic about the past, though Islay describes the Tofino of her youth in glowing terms. Though 77, she is comfortable living in the present and tells me in detail about her many friends and acquaintances. Unlike most senior citizens, she actually enjoys youth, and remarks on the wonderful opportunities young people have today compared to during her youth. I’m thinking—An elderly woman who doesn’t badmouth young people. This is refreshing.

“Any regrets?” I ask. “Anything you would like to have done differently?” “Regrets are pointless,” she replies with arched eyebrows. “But I would have liked to be a newspaper reporter. I would have liked covering the city beat.” Then, following a brief search among personal papers, she hands me a copy of an article she wrote for Tofino’s once popular, The Sound. It’s a touching memoir of her observations and feelings the day the CPR ship, the Princess Maquinna arrived in Tofino to take all of Tofino’s Japanese community away to internment camps during the second world war, following a parliamentary decree. She lost many young friends that day. “…my Japanese friends went up the gang-plank, clutching their suitcases or possessions wrapped in snowy white cloths. Not one of them looked back or waved good-bye. The ship sailed and somehow the innocence of my youth and part of my heart went with it… The Japanese did not return to live in Tofino, and I never saw or heard from my friends again.”

Extended conversation with Islay MacLeod reveals a strong-willed, compassionate woman. On the wall near us hangs the framed poem Warning, by Jenny Joseph, that begins famously “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t go…” The poem expresses the intention of doing just what one feels like doing, rather than conforming to the conventional expectations of society. When I ask Islay what she likes about the poem she lights up. “It’s me!” she says, and quotes, “ I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired”, and, “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain…and learn to spit”.

It’s her, all right. When I take my leave, my hands are full of Islay's lemon loaf and scones, and my mind full of hope that when I am an old woman, I will be both as feisty and warm-hearted as Islay Macleod. I know, however, that I’ll never look as remarkable in a yellow beret.

Shirley Langer has resided in Tofino since 1995. She describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic conscienceness.

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Islay Macleod and her life in Tofino. Written by Shirley Langer for Tofino TIme Magazine as part of the Tofino Profile series.

tofino time june 2004

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