December 6, 2012

Miracle on Veith St.

Ninety-five years ago today, my grandmother Marguerite Ainsworth (née Dryden) survived the Halifax Explosion.  Born in December 1916, she may be among the last living survivors.  In our Catholic family, it’s considered a miracle.

Just a few days shy of her first birthday, she was pulled from the rubble of her Veith St. home after the disaster on December 6, 1917.  Her father, William Dryden, had arrived home to find his wife Georgina, 34, and his son Percy, 6, and daughter Dorothy, 3, dead.  According to the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, he identified their bodies

It is one of the first stories I remember hearing about my family, and I vividly recall visiting the Maritime Museum for the first time and seeing the personal effects taken from the pockets of schoolchildren killed by the explosion...and feeling haunted by the homeliness of the objects, by my grandmother's narrow escape, by the horrible randomness of unpredictable tragedy.
The listings of the dead are available online, as linked above, through the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, thanks to Nova Scotia Archives.  The book is an amazing document of tragedy that supplements the original handwritten ledger book that was started after the explosion to keep track of the dead.

At first I thought these
listings for Andrew Dryden and Alice Dryden were misidentified as Georgina Dryden’s children since there was another family at 48 Veith Street, the Findleys, with a mother also named Georgina, and who also died along with a number of children.  Then I found a birth record for Andrew Percy Ernest Dryden, the same age as Percy Dryden, born in 1911 to my great-grandparents William Andrew Dryden and Georgina (Cooke) Dryden  There is no birth record available in the archives for either an Alice or a Dorothy Dryden, but my best guess now is that this is a similar double-listing for Dorothy, based on her full name.  I’ll ask my grandmother. 
What would have happened if my grandmother hadn’t survived?  It's too hard for me to imagine.  Among other things, I wouldn’t exist, or I wouldn’t be me. 

My grandmother, my mother, and me in front of my old house in Ottawa.

I don’t know how my great-grandfather coped with the loss of wife and older children.  He had already lost one son, his first-born and namesake, William, who had died in 1911 at age one from cholera.  I believe he married again, quickly.  My grandmother was soon joined by two half-sisters. 

My grandmother is an amazing woman.  Her husband (my grandfather), John Ainsworth, who died before I was born, was visually impaired, and after her marriage and even after his death, my grandmother has spent most of her adult life (well over 60 years) volunteering in organizations to assist the blind.  She is kind, conscientious, and generous to a fault.  Before her house in Halifax’s Hydrostone had to be sold this year, her wall was covered with recognition awards for her active volunteer work.  There is a little write-up here about her (you have to scroll down) on the occasion of receiving an award for merit in 2008 from the Canadian Council for the Blind.  

A family photo from my grandmother's 90th birthday party in Halifax in 2006.
This year she has not been well enough to get out and be as active as she used to be.  There was no way for her to come to my wedding.  I think I am the only grandchild now who doesn’t live in Nova Scotia. I miss her.  


Samantha said...

What an amazing, touching story. Thank you for sharing!

Sara O'Leary said...

Lovely post, Saleema.
I think that collection of pocket items has to be one of the most heart-rending things I've ever seen.

Vanessa said...

Saleema! A beautiful reflection on a beautiful lady. I thought of your grandmother's 90th birthday this weekend as I attended my grandmother's 90th here in Edmonton. I was lucky to be your date and meet your lovely family. xo

Vivienne Macy said...

That's an incredible story Sal. It must have been devastating for your great grandfather and all of Halifax to go through that.

It's so easy to distance yourself from the headlines. Thank you for making this anniversary personal.

Alice Zorn said...

Well written, Saleema.
How wonderful to have such a feisty grandmother.

saleema said...

Samantha, Sara, Vanessa, Viv, Alice: thanks very much!

@Van I was so happy to have you there. :) Happy birthday to your granny!

@Alice Feisty sounds like a better word for your grandmother than mine -- to me it suggests a hint of outspokenness....

Alice Zorn said...

Outspoken, yeah, but to me feisty also means resilient, dogged, not-giving-up-ness. Anyone who makes it such a grand age has to be feisty, no?