Chapter Two My Paternal Grandparents

My recollection of my paternal grandmother is rather dim. She seemed to me a small, wiry woman, rather acerbic in manner. My earliest memory of her was at age 5, while I was wading in the deep snow in great glee, and with a strong Scots accent, she was calling me in. She gave me a brisk command: “Come in, my foolish bairn, with snow up to your backside.” I also remember she had no back teeth and chewed her food with her front teeth. This gave her a rather poutish look. The poor dear had a very hard life. She was born Marion Cochrane in 1828 in South Africa; her father belonged to a Scottish Regiment sent there to quell some uprising. (This was long before the Boer War of 1900.) She was brought up in Scotland and married John Skilling, my paternal grandfather, in about 1852 in Scotland.  He was a ship’s carpenter in Scotland. They emigrated to Canada and had a family of four, my father, the eldest and also named John, Janet, Willie, and Maggie. (They were always known by their diminutives.) They lived in a small village, named Leith, on Georgian Bay near Owen Sound, Ontario.
In 1864, my grandfather John fell from a high mast to the deck and was killed, leaving my grandmother with four children and another on the way, my Aunt Aggie. My father was eleven years old and already in the equivalent of Grade 9, called at that time ‘Junior Leaving’. He had to quit school and go to work as there were no pensions, welfare, workman’s compensation or mother’s allowance in those days. My grandmother Marion went to work in the woolen mill and the children were “taken in” by kindly and, perhaps not so kindly relatives until they also were ready to go to work. They always stayed together as much as possible and I remember my aunts, uncles and cousins with great affection.

Marion Cochran Skilling centre with Aggie, John, Janet, Willie & Maggie
c. 1874
I lived for a year in 1918 with my Aunt Aggie in Stratford, Ontario when I was attending Teacher’s College. She used to talk about her early childhood and I got the impression that it was not happy. She used to be sent in her bare feet to bring in the cows. She said she would have to walk through the wet grass and would stand on big stones along the way to warm her feet. I never heard any of my other aunts talk of their hard times and I do remember the good times and much laughter when they got together. I remember particularly Aunt Maggie (Margaret) who married Will Byers and moved to Detroit, Michigan. He was a delightful and quite artistic man. His job was painting delivery wagons, etc., and doing lettering on the sides of them. They have a fairly large family and we visit back and forth considerably.  They had a daughter Monita, the same age as me, but she was much more aggressive than I was. I suppose being city bred had that effect on her, compared to me, a village girl.

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