Chapter Nine Mae Skilling

Mae ( Marion Emma) was born on June 2, 1885 when Orville was 23 months, Maude barely 4 years, and Floss was 6 ½. She was 12 years my senior. My mother said Mae was the most ‘aggressive’ of our family, but she did not use that exact word. Mae distinctly had qualities of leadership from an early age.

My earliest recollection of her is when she and Gert left home to attend a Teacher Training School called ‘Model School’ in Mount Forest, Ontario. This was a four month course which gave them what was called a Third Class Teaching Certificate. A group of six of them went: Mae and Gert, Merle Mann, Louise Howson, Wilma Johnson and Gladys McPherson (who later married Dr. Midford Gillies, and was mother of James Gillies, former MPP). Gladys, the last survivor of this group died in January 1980 at the age of 94. These girls were an extremely clever and peppy bunch. I was about 10 at the time and worshipped them. All were accomplished singers and formed a double trio which performed in the Teeswater area. I reveled in the times they came to our house to practice. 

About this time I used to take a great interest in watching them dress for parties and singing engagements. I was put in bed by this time but wasn’t asleep. First, they put on a corset which was laced up the back, with the laces pulled very tight, so that their waists were quite tiny and their hips looked quite large. This was a desirable contrast, and I remember hearing a lady once compliment Mae on her nice plump hips. That wasn’t enough. They would then pad the hips out with what was called ‘a bustle’, a four or five inch thick padding fastened around the tiny waist with tapes. Next came the tight ‘under waist’, designed to flatten their bosom, and upon this was pinned a sort of bib with many starched frills, each edged with valentine’s lace. This gave a nice round smooth front for their shirt waists and hid any semblance of breasts. If no one was around to pull the laces of the corset, the lace was looped around the bed post and the lone person getting dressed would walk a few steps to tighten the corset.
In those days all the women had long hair. The front of the hair was combed down over the face, furiously backcombed, and on top was pinned ‘a rat’, about three inches in diameter. This was made of their combings or could be purchased. They securely pinned it from ear to ear then with one grand sweep, threw the teased hair up over the ‘rat’ and produced what was called ‘a pompadour’. The back hair got the same treatment: the ends were formed into a knot or a figure 8 and pinned securely with many hair pins.
Then the hats were placed on top of this masterpiece of hairdressing and fastened securely with great long sharp hat pins which often had a gorgeous knob on the end. (The hat pins, I heard, could also be used as a means of self-defense.)

Mae was musically gifted and played the piano and violin in the Teeswater Orchestra.
About this time (around 1905?) Mae got a job teaching in a remote place called Scotland, on Manitoulin Island. She talked for years about the hardships of the winter and earned the princely sum of $250 a year. After Mae saved enough money, she and Gert registered at Normal School in Toronto to upgrade their qualifications. They lived with Orville and Rose Skilling.
Mae was accepted on the staff of the Toronto Board and in a few years climbed to assistant principal at Perth Avenue Public School, an unusual position for a woman at the time. She held this position for many years.

While at Perth Avenue School she trained and directed the school choir. For nine years in a row, they were awarded the Gold Shield at the All Toronto Elementary Schools Music Festival, held annually on Empire Day at Massey Hall. It became a foregone conclusion that Perth Avenue School would sweep the awards even with different adjudicators. Others began to complain that some schools would not enter the competition as there was no chance of winning. One day the judges gave First Place to another school and Mae was devastated by the loss.  She called it “jealousy”.
That was a hard summer for us. Even though I was thrilled to have her home, it wasn’t long before she was slapping and yelling at me. I could never do anything right in her eyes.  We kids learned to tread lightly when Mae was around as one never knew when that left hand would whack us out of the blue.
Mae had a boyfriend named George McQuibban whom she met at ‘Model School’ in Mount Forest. That seemed to me to be the ultimate in love stories. She talked about him a great deal but I never met him because, when he came to Teeswater, Vern and I were shipped off to friends in the country. George was going to medical college. This ‘affair’ went on for years and years. (I use the word ‘affair’ in the connotation of 1912 not 1980.) Alas, around 1917 or 1918, George ended the relationship. He was going blind and died a few years later.
I admired Mae tremendously with all the glamour surrounding her. She could be most generous. When any financial help was needed for education, she was the first to offer. She paid my board and fees when I went to Normal School in Stratford. When Harold and Bill returned from the war in 1920 she was right there to help. When I had to have a serious operation at Easter of my Normal School year and had given up all hopes of passing, she encouraged me to take some of my exams in bed and others in a private room. Fortunately I passed. I wonder if I ever paid her back or thanked her sufficiently. She also rallied us all around to help pay Harold’s expenses at Dental College when he returned from France. There was no Department of Veterans’ Affairs in those days.
Mae was a natural comedienne and could keep a roomful of people in stitches for a whole evening with her mimicking. She had a way of making funny faces that would have me rolling on the floor, helpless with laughter.

Mae had begun teaching music appreciation in the classroom where her talent was recognized by the Columbia Gramophone Company. There was a developing interest in the use of phonograph records as an educational device.  Mae was offered a job with Columbia teaching music appreciation, writing to music, folk dancing etc. in Normal Schools and Colleges. She travelled across Canada, all expenses paid and for the unheard of salary at the time, of $3000 a year. She once gave me a present with a tag saying “to Norma, from the three thousand dollar lady”.
In 1924 she gave up all this affluence and married Wadd Mason, a widower with a 10 year old daughter named Doris. They lived on Hillsdale Avenue in north Toronto.

When the music teacher at Toronto Normal School died suddenly in 1930, Mae was called in to replace him. Later she was approached to direct a Toronto Women Teachers’ Choir. She trained them beautifully and for a few years she filled Massey Hall and Eaton auditorium for two nights with lovely choral music.
Mae and Wadd had one of the first camping trailers and went on trips coast to coast every summer. When Wadd retired, they bought five acres near Unionville, Ontario and lived in the trailer while Wadd set about building a lovely substantial home for them with his own hands.
“The Farm” as we called it, with its large garden and beautiful apple orchard, became a Mecca for their large circle of friends and the family. We always felt welcome to come whether it was to skate on the ice on the little lazy river that wound through the property, to gather spring flowers, to devour strawberries, to load the car up with vegetables, to have corn roasts, to pick apples or to have Christmas dinners or New Year’s Eve parties. So many memories there.
During the last few years of her life, Mae seemed to have much less energy though she still had a great interest in life and all her surroundings. She died on August 2, 1967 and has been sorely missed both by her wide circle of friends and all the family.

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