Chapter Ten Gert Skilling

Mae was only 22 months when my mother gave birth to Gertrude Edna on April 14, 1887. We all called her Gert though my mother called her Gertie. She was born with the cord wrapped around her neck and nearly died at birth. She had a great many birthmarks on her legs. My mother said Gertie was the cleverest of all her nine children. She walked at seven months. She was quite small in stature and was the prettiest of the Skilling girls. She had green eyes with dark lashes and her skin was ‘peaches and cream’. She was considered a real beauty with her light brown hair that shone almost luminously.
Gert’s feet were tiny and she had a pair of highly desirable ‘Queen Quality’ shoes that I wanted so much for her to hand down to me. But even though Gertie was 9 years my senior, I soon passed her in size and alas, never could get even my big toe into her ‘Queen Quality’ shoes. She really was a little Cinderella and I often used to feel like the ugly sister with my freckles and taller stature by about age 14. I don’t think I ever bore her any ill will.
After going to Normal School, Gert came back to Teeswater to teach for a few years in a rural School called the Eighth School. She commuted the 2 ½ miles back and forth daily on a bicycle. I loved to go out there to her school for special occasions like Christmas concerts and spring picnics where I got to know a lot of her pupils. She also taught in Teeswater School in the Primary room which was a separate building, when I was in about Grade Eight (called Senior Fourth at that time).One day when we were lined up to march into our classroom, Gert came out of the big school to go to the old stone school where the primary classes were held, and one of my classmates remarked with admiration: “Isn’t she a dainty little piece, though?” I was surprised, thrilled and proud. I had always just considered her my sister and did not appreciate her beauty.

by S.Askin
Teeswater, Ont.
After teaching around Teeswater for a few years, Gert did a very courageous thing and accepted a position in Calgary, Alberta, which to me seemed like the end of the world. We looked forward to her letters wanting to read about the exciting things happening in her life. Each year at Christmas a box arrived from Gert that was the highlight of our Christmas season. Besides sending unique and very acceptable gifts for us all, she enclosed holly and pine cones and all sorts of decorative pieces. At that time presents were not wrapped in gift wrappings. Today I remember the imaginative and artistic little decorations more than I remember any of the gifts. She had a real talent for the beautiful and unusual, much more than was often appreciated at that time.

by Arthur Studio
Detroit, Mich.

She met Harvey Kavaner in Calgary and in due time they were married. To save money they were quietly married there on June 1, 1915 and came home on their honeymoon. I remember they were very lovey-dovey. Harvey was a member of the Calgary Grain Exchange and later became very successful. In honour of the occasion, my father painted the house.
Gert and Harvey had three children, Merren, born in 1916, Jean, born in 1919 and Harvey Jr., born in 1920.  They moved to Winnipeg around this time and Harvey became President of the Red River Grain Company.
In 1921 I went out to teach at River Heights School in Winnipeg at Gert’s invitation and lived with them. Merren was five, Jean was two and Harvey was one year old.  There was a year and a day between Jean and Harvey. 

Gert was very talented at interior decorating. Even when she lived at home she would make curtains and hangings with lovely stenciling. Her home was always beautiful. She taught me a lot later after I was married about how to change a room around with a few adept changes and enhance the appearance.
Gert was at least 50 years ahead of her time regarding nutrition. She could have been a doctor, so well informed was she about so many things which she put into practice. In 1924 she got grain from the milling company, did research and experimented using her little hand meat grinder, with different combinations of wheat, rye and flax until she formulated the recipe for a tasty and healthy hot porridge which she named Red River Cereal. I was happy to have a part in introducing this product in 1926 at the Toronto Exhibition. Grace and Vern and I made porridge and served it with real cream in tiny portions while explaining the healthy ingredients: wheat, rye and flax. This cereal has been on the market ever since.

Kavaner Family

Sadly, little Jean died in 1926 just before her 7th birthday, when her dressing gown caught on fire after touching the red hot element of an electric heater. This caused a great deal of grief in the family and strained relations between Gert and Harvey.
They built a very grand home at 901 Wellington Crescent and moved in 1929. In the summer of 1930, Mae, Wadd and Doris Mason and Grace Skilling drove to Winnipeg to spend 6 weeks of the summer with the Kavaners and were feted at a huge garden party there. I never saw the house but heard about it from those who had. That year the exterior and interior of the house on Wellington Crescent, was featured in Canadian Homes and Gardens.

Gert Skilling Kavaner
Alas, the crash of October 1929 had tragic effects on the fortunes of the Kavaners and they were later forced to sell their beautiful mansion.
In December 1936 Gert came home to visit our parents and arrived just a few hours after our mother’s death from pneumonia. Our father was senile and quite a problem. In fact I think this hastened our mother’s death. Gert took hold of the situation and cared for our father until his death the following July in 1937. She got some tutoring jobs and some part-time teaching at Moulton College and she ran the house where mother had roomers after we all had left.
The shock of mother’s sudden death and the pressure of caring for our father compounded the earlier trauma of her little Jean’s death from the fire. When her son Harvey left to join the war as a pilot in 1939, Gert had a stroke and a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized and after a lingering illness died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Toronto in 1946 just a month before her grandson Craig was born to daughter Merren and George Murray. Her kindness and consideration for others knew no bounds, but her body could not stand all the pressures.  She gave so much, to so many. A clever, sensitive person to whom life dealt too many blows.

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