Lesley Walter, 1950-2016, née Ritchie was born in Sydney and spent most of her childhood in the beachside suburb of Cronulla. She was the youngest of three sisters and often spoke of her gratitude for the ‘charmed childhood’ she had enjoyed. She was so close in age to her middle sister Vicki that the pair delighted in pretending they were twins.
Lesley was educated at SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, a girls’ school with a proud academic tradition and then at the University of Sydney, where she graduated with a Master of Letters Degree in Australian Literature and was awarded the Dame Leonie Kramer Prize in Australian Poetry for her thesis on the poetry of Kate Llewellyn. After working as a secondary school teacher and a university administrator she met and married the great love of her life, Terry Walter, whose work took them to live in Singapore on two occasions, times Lesley especially enjoyed – she loved the tropics and particularly appreciated never feeling cold.
Lesley had always adored babies and longed to have children. After some disappointments about which she wrote poems of fearless honesty, she rejoiced in three daughters.Terry had a much-loved daughter from a previous marriage, who delighted in her interstate holiday visits to her father’s new family, safe in the knowledge that Lesley was the most loving of stepmothers. Lesley and Terry settled in Summer Hill in a leafy ‘heritage street’.in a house of which they grew more and more fond as the years went by. She wrote movingly of their home in a poem When I leave this life.
…the light from the house
spilling over the lawn, where every year when they
were young, you mowed our children’s ages and initials
in the grass, we sat with friends, our washing flapped
and our pets lazed in the sun. The thrum of distant trains
will still br heard on quiet nights…
The wisteria will burst with lavender blossom every
spring, and the moon will rise above our jacaranda.
from her book Life Drawings
Family life with all its joys, irritations and inevitable sadnesses provided Lesley with endless material for poetry. Keen-eyed, keen-witted yet compassionate, Lesley had a gift for telling it how it was. There were playful poems on her daughters, teasing ones for Terry and sometimes poems of grief and pain or excoriating responses to injustice and dishonesty. Her poetry was becoming widely published and attendance at the famous residential poetry workshops instigated by Ron Pretty and Wollongong University soon saw the appearance in 2000 of Lesley’s first book, Watermelon Baby, Five Islands Press.
Ron Pretty’s poetry workshops made an enormous contribution to the fortunes of countless emerging Australian poets. Including stimulating tutors such as Kevin Brophy and Michael Sharkey, these memorable gatherings have yet to be properly evaluated but there is no question new poets learnt much and thrived. Lasting friendships were formed, including my own with dear Lesley. She was working hard on her poetry and had many awards to her credit, not least winning the 2005 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize with her memorable poem Hyphenated Lives as well as the 2002 Society of Women Writers NSW Poetry Prize. Lesley, ever generous with her time, also served as President of this Society and was also Treasurer of the NSW Poets’ Union. Hyphenated Lives was a remarkable poem, dealing with the lives of a famous 19th century pair of Siamese twins and calling on reserves of empathy few writers could attempt.
Another brilliant example of Lesley’s gift for presenting a scene is Visiting my sister, its bland title deceptive. The sister happened to live in Cairo, a city dysfunctional almost beyond belief, where twenty million people live with appalling pollution and traffic with no road rules evident. ‘Cars are dented wrecks, their tyres treadless… / my sister quips, ‘Bald tyres are fine, / So long as cars have four of them…’
Lesley had always drawn and painted but never had any lessons until later in life when she took classes in life drawing, resulting in a collection of line drawings which also included studies of her beloved cat, Tabitha. The drawings contributed to the engagingly apt title of her second and, sadly, her last book Life Drawings Walleah Press (2014), a wide-ranging collection of deeply felt poems. As Jean Kent wrote , the book ‘draws beautifully from daily living to create a kaleidoscope of overlapping generations… from exhilaration at the birth of a grandchild… to grief at the failing of mind and body in old age’.
Lesley had an immense capacity for enjoying life and learning new things. Her passion for languages led to her studying Spanish and before receiving her diploma setting off, alone, for Mexico where she lived for over a month with a family in the historic city of Oaxaca. On her return to Australia she worked at teaching English to non-native speakers.
In 2015 she was stricken with inoperable brain cancer yet maintained as long as she could her participation in the Haiku group she enjoyed so much. Lesley died on 21 May 2016, courageous to the end.
On printed sheets as flat as sand
she’d spread her small translucent hands.
Fine tapered fingers, five each side –
two starfish, stranded by the tide.
While others curled hands into fists
she spread hers generously as gifts.
Between them, washed up, sunk in sleep,
a shell-crowned virgin stretch of cheek.
Eleven years have lapped her hands
and gently washed them from the sands,
I watch her fingers trill the flute, writte
seeing still, small starfish splayed on sheets.
from Watermelon Baby
Written by Barbara Fisher. Barbara Fisher has worked as an illustrator, copywriter, art teacher and antiquarian bookseller. She has published four books of poetry, most recently Rescued from Time, Ginninderra Press (2016). She is represented in numerous anthologies, including various Best Australian Poetry series, Les Murray’s Quadrant Book of Poetry (2012) and Women’s Work (2013).