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Helen Margaret “Peggy” McAlpine: Curious. Art lover. Fashionista. Matriarch. Born Oct. 16, 1915, in Richibucto, N.B.; died Sept. 3, 2021, in Halifax, of natural causes; aged 105.

On certain warm summer evenings, the harmony of five sisters would reverberate throughout Dundee, Cape Breton, as they sang from the veranda of their summer home. Peggy (the eldest), Marian, Jean, Grace and Eleanor delighted their audience and each other with their rendition of the lullaby Lula Lula Lula Bye Bye.

Helen Margaret 'Peggy' McAlpine.Courtesy of family

Peggy and her sisters grew up in Sydney until their mother died when Peggy was in her late teens. Her younger sisters were sent to live with relatives while she stayed in the city. At 21, Peggy married Robert McAlpine and moved to Halifax for his job. Prior to that, and only briefly, Peggy had been his secretary. However, she didn’t like the work much and didn’t do very well at it.

During the Second World War, Bob worked in a civilian role and Peggy did her part, too. Their home was a retreat for many a lonely young naval officer, looking for a place to do his laundry, have a cup of tea and hear a kind word.

Bob and Peggy’s daughters – Mimi, Heather and Isabel – were taught how to make Peggy’s world-famous brown bread and sugar cookies and there was plenty of singing. Etiquette was part of the fun, too: how to enter a room; how to pose for a photo with your feet placed in a T position; and how it was so important to be curious about the world around you.

When Isabel died from pancreatic cancer at age 36, Peggy stepped in to provide support and comfort to her young family. Cooking dinners, checking homework and taking the children on seaside road trips helped create unforgettable memories for the family.

Peggy would also nurse Bob through a long illness at their home in Chester, and when he died at 88 she moved back to Halifax. Peggy loved the arts and shared this love with her children and grandchildren. She volunteered at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and collected works from emerging artists plus notable pieces from Maud Lewis, Doug Elliott and others.

Peggy filled her days with art, reading, music and friends. She walked around Point Pleasant Park and played golf well into her 90s. She thought it was important to have friends of all ages and became the semi-official Team Grandmother of Dalhousie’s women’s basketball team. At the coach’s request, she taught the team social graces off the court, including table manners and napkin placement.

And yet her raucous, enthusiastic one-handed whistle was well known to all athletes as she cheered them on.

Peggy loved to travel and visited her family on the West Coast regularly until age 99. She also enjoyed driving. At 91 she got a speeding ticket. It took some time for the RCMP to catch her attention (she was enjoying a symphony on her new car’s stereo system). And when the sensitive discussion about her driver’s licence renewal came up, she told her family, “Oh I play it very safe, I only take right turns.”

Fashion was always top of mind for Peggy and she wanted to know the key pieces to keep her wardrobe current. At 101, she received a scarf for Christmas. She accepted it graciously but exchanged it a few days later.

At 100, with six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren to brag about, Peggy moved into a retirement home. She travelled light, without the need for medication, simply eyeglasses and hearing aids. Peggy had outlived her sisters. A wooden turtle brooch that she wore most days on her right lapel could be considered a talisman from life’s health hazards.

Peggy was often asked about her secret to longevity. “Attitude,” she’d say. Being positive, being inquisitive and being grateful for life’s daily experience, whatever that presented.

Tara Wickwire is Peggy’s granddaughter-in-law.

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