PORT AUX BASQUES, NL – When she was 75, Grace Lefresne still slept in a hammock and didn’t even have a bed in her apartment.
The year before she died, she drove herself from St. John’s to New York and back.
These two facts about Grace reveal just how fiercely independent she was and the unusual way she chose to live decades ahead of the time when women were expected to aspire to little more than having a husband and children.
Her great niece, Heather Stacey, still feels Grace’s influence to this day and is finally ready to undertake the monumental task of documenting her remarkable relative’s fascinating life, from hardship to adventure.
“When I was about five, my Dad turned half of our basement into an apartment and she moved in with us,” Stacey told the Gulf News via phone from her home in Montreal.
Having never met her own grandmother, Grace’s sister Aileen, the little girl soon bonded with Grace and the two would often hang out and go on adventures together.
“We used to go for drives,” remembers Stacey, who hails originally from St. John’s. “She just wanted to get lost, but really as an adult in St. John’s you can’t get lost.”
Grace would let Stacey navigate, directing them to turn left and right at random. The result was that the duo would often find themselves exploring sections of the city they’d never been to before or hadn’t even known were there.
“You take a wrong turn? Who cares? It’s the scenic route,” says Stacey of what she learned from Grace. “You’ll get there eventually.”
Now Stacey is undertaking a long journey of her own, one that will likely require extensive travel and patience before she completes her quest to retrace Grace’s steps, from humble beginnings in Isle aux Morts to Detroit, Michigan, New York City and even London, England.
“Everything is not 100 per cent fact checked yet,” cautions Stacey before delving into Grace’s story. Most of what she has uncovered so far comes by word of mouth from people who knew Grace after Stacey reached out on social media.
Eliza Grace Lefresne was born in 1921, the oldest of seven children in Isle aux Morts. Her parents, Norman and Lillian (nee Peddle) relocated to Detroit when she was still quite young, about four or five.
When Grace was 13 her mother died, likely in childbirth, and her father passed away only a year later.
Somehow the young teenager got herself and her six siblings to New York and then back to St. John’s via boat, where they were to be taken in by an uncle.
“This is where the stories vary,” says Stacey.
Whether the uncle was dissatisfied, or unable to take in so many children, except for Grace the kids all ended up in orphanages. Two of the four boys would eventually be adopted.
Deemed too old for an orphanage, Grace instead travelled to New York and began working to earn as much money as possible. For a 14 or 15-year-old teenager, being forced into such an early independence must have been frightening, but Grace persevered until she had saved enough money to return to Newfoundland and reclaimed her two sisters, who were around ages five and 10, from the orphanage.
She brought them back to Brooklyn, New York where she raised them. By then, says Stacey, Grace was likely only around 16 years old.
“From what I’ve heard she literally lived on bread and water for a year just for the sake of not wasting a single penny,” says Stacey. “Some family friend got her a job with the British embassy at that time.”
It was likely a very low-level entry position, recounts Stacey, but Grace would go on to spend her entire career with the British embassy, rising through the ranks until retirement.
Along the way she would travel the world, sleeping in enough hammocks in jungles until she became so accustomed to it that she rejected traditional beds and installed a hammock in her own apartment.
“She was based out of London,” says Stacey, who is still researching which ambassadors Grace worked for. “She travelled anywhere the British embassy needed people, so anywhere that wasn’t a British colony basically.”
Grace spent time in India, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Japan and even Bolivia.
“She never married, and she never had any other children of her own. She was completely independent, fiercely independent,” remembers Stacey.
One year before her death in 1996, Grace drove by herself from St. John’s, Newfoundland to New York to visit friends and family. She would never allow anyone to accompany her, says Stacey, because Grace disliked having to adjust her plans or schedule accordingly.
“She was brilliantly smart,” says Stacey. “To watch Jeopardy with her was a joke. She knew everything. She travelled the world, worked her way up in the British embassy, and raised her two (sisters) on her own in the 1940s in New York.
“It’s just ridiculous the things that she overcame and accomplished as a woman on her own, unmarried, in the 1940s, 50s.”
In researching Grace, Stacey already has a huge resource at her disposal. Grace was an avid writer who kept detailed records and slides of her adventures. Notes about a trip will mention a particular carousel and slide number, and Stacey regularly visits her father’s house in St. John’s where they are kept.
Stacey is also hoping that in the piles of notebooks she will come across Grace’s address book so that she can speak with others who knew Grace during her younger, more adventurous days.
“That’s the massive aspect of this research project, is trying to actually pinpoint all of these events and how they come together to make a complete story,” says Stacey.
Not everything is in Grace’s notes or online. Stacey plans to visit New York and likely London and has even been invited by 95-year-old Leona Lefrense to stop by her home in Vancouver for a chat about Grace.
Leona’s late husband, Ambrose, was Grace’s father's first cousin and Leona has stories of Grace whenever she would drop by their home in Isle aux Morts while passing through the area. Leona first met Grace when she was only 15.
“She has a wealth of information.”
Stacey’s husband is a short film director, but she believes a feature script would be more appropriate for Grace’s story. Stacey doesn’t think she’ll write a book and claims to be a “crappy writer.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to know that until I’m done,” admits Stacey. “I think in the world today, right now is a monumental time for strong, independent women and I don’t think you get stronger or more independent than her.”
Those wishing to follow Heather Stacey’s journey as she uncovers Grace’s story can do so online via her blog: gracelefresne.blogspot.ca.
Note: The article originally listed Heather Stacey's husband as a documentary filmmaker, and Heather Stacey has since discovered that Ambrose LeFrense was not Grace's first cousin as previously thought, but first cousin to her father, Norman.