By LINDSAY JONES
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
The morning of Dec. 6, 1917, fiveyear-old Kaye McLeod lined up a jumble of pink-cheeked dolls and gathered her Bible and hymnbook.
She was about to start playing Sunday school with her dolls when a deafening boom swept her off her feet.
A French cargo ship full of munitions destined for the front lines of the First World War had struck a Norwegian vessel in the narrowest part of Halifax Harbour. The collision triggered the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb, with an explosive force equal to about 2.9 kilotons of TNT.
Kaye flew up in the air and landed between two doors in the entrance to her Clifton Street home. She lay screaming for her mother as shards of glass, broken furniture and plaster rained down.
Remarkably, the girl and her family escaped unscathed by the blast that obliterated the north end of Halifax, killing nearly 2,000 and wounding 9,000.
Kaye, whose married name was Chapman, went on to live for nearly a century after that fateful day. She was the last known survivor to share an eyewitness account of the Halifax Explosion. She died on Oct. 21 in New Brunswick at the Saint John Regional Hospital. She was 105.
Her granddaughter, Chere Chapman, says her grandmother always believed that the Bible and hymnbook she had in her hand when the explosion hit were the reasons she and her family survived.
"I've never met anyone who was more faithful or religious than my grandmother," she said. "She firmly believed that her faith kept her okay and she believed it until the end. It was definitely the most important thing in her life."
On that morning in 1917, Kaye's mother, Alice McLeod (née Zinck), had been preparing a batch of baked beans for the 13th birthday party of her other daughter, Mildred. All the neighbourhood children were going to go for a horse-drawn sleigh ride to celebrate.
But fate had other plans.
Kaye's mother was pinned against a hutch full of dishes, a cutout scroll design protecting her pregnant belly from the full weight of the cabinet.
(The baby, Pearl McLeod, was born seven months later.)
Mrs. McLeod screamed at her daughter to stay put as electrical wires sizzled and snaked around the home.
The two eventually made their way outside to a gruesome scene of chaos. People cradled their bloodsoaked neighbours. Headless bodies hung out of windows. People stumbled around in shock.
Kaye and her sister Mildred were soon dispatched to check on their grandmother on nearby Moran Street. They walked with their arms locked together, trying not to look as the horse-drawn ambulances trundled by, packed with the gravely wounded.
In the days that followed, Kaye dragged home relief supplies to feed her family and helped pick up the pieces of her family's destroyed home, in the bone-chilling cold.
Chere attributes her grandmother's longevity to the grace with which she handled whatever came her way. "She lived from the age of horse-drawn carriage to the iPad and rolled with everything in between. She just cruised along and adapted to it and kept going," she said.
Kathleen Marjory McLeod was born April 21, 1912, in Halifax, the same year the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her four older siblings used to tease her, saying she wasn't really part of the family, but an orphan from the Titanic who had washed up in Halifax.
Her father, Thomas Albert McLeod, drove a horse-and-wagon laundry cart for work. Alice McLeod ran a meticulous home.
After the explosion, the family eventually moved to Moran Street, a lane of mirror-image saltbox homes next to the Halifax Common. Life returned to a new normal as the north end was rebuilt: Shops reopened, children returned to school and survivors went back to work.
Kaye and the other children of Moran Street frolicked in packs, going coasting and skating in the winter and swimming in the Northwest Arm in summer.
In school, she skipped two grades, prompting her parents to start squirrelling away money to pay for her college.
Kaye had other ideas. A lover of fashion and the latest hairstyles, she wanted to go to hairdressing school.
But caring for her family would take precedence.
When her mother became ill, she was the nurse. She took care of the home and her sister Pearl, who was still a child.
Alice McLeod died of abdominal cancer at 45.
Though still a teenager, Kaye did what she had to do, helping to raise 11-year-old Pearl and be there for her father.
Four years later, her father remarried and Kaye moved out on her own. She worked at a beauty salon on Quinpool Road, where she was known for her impeccable grooming, joyful chatter and easy friendships.
She had a full calendar of dates and turned down many young men's offers to go steady. But it was Rae Chapman and his massive bouquet of flowers - as well as her older sister Mildred's gentle coaxing - that finally won her over.
She happily married Mr. Chapman, a Heinz salesman from Amherst, N.S., and they moved to Charlottetown, where they had a baby girl, Carol Ann. They later moved again to Moncton and their son, Wayne, was born.
Mr. Chapman moved up the ranks of Heinz, eventually becoming regional manager.
Staying true to her beauty salon beginnings, Mrs. Chapman took a job selling cosmetics at Eaton's department store in Moncton. When the family moved again, this time to Saint John, Mrs. Chapman sold cosmetics at Manchester Robertson Allison, an upmarket independent department store.
"She loved it," Chere said. "She was totally into it. Much to my parents' dismay, up until the day she died, she'd say, 'You need to bring more creams. This is not enough for my arms and legs.' " Until the last few months of her life, Mrs. Chapman lived independently at the Chateau de Champlain retirement home in Saint John - always looking her best in a wig and matching jewellery, engaging with friends and family, and attending her local church.
Mrs. Chapman leaves two children, Carol Ann Einarson of Ottawa and Wayne Chapman of Rothesay; two grandchildren, Jim Einarson and Chere; seven great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
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Kaye Chapman, née McLeod, fourth from the left, is seen with her family a few years after the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Ms. Chapman's granddaughter, Chere, says her grandmother always believed that the Bible and hymnbook she had when the explosion hit were the reasons she and her family survived.