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Mary Jean MacKay Ross Skoggard May 13, 1917–December 6, 2003

by Ross Skoggard | May 4, 2004

Among her other gifts, my mother, Jean Ross Skoggard, was a natural mimic. Her best stories were salted with uncanny impersonations. She just had the gift. Some people can do voices. She could do gestures. She could summon Ethelwyn Zimmerman, Alida Martin, her aunt Anne and others with a tilt of her head, a set of her mouth and forehead.

Her real gift, though, was her art. She could evoke a person or place with an expressive Chinese brush on dampened watercolour paper with just a few strokes. Jean’s best and most beloved paintings capture the light and the myriad emotions of the water and sky of Georgian Bay.

The romance-novel adventure that was her life took her from Toronto to Peking to New York and back to Toronto again, and spanned much of the 20th century. Mary Jean MacKay Ross was born at home on St. George Street in Toronto, on May 13, 1917 – the same day a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenage girls in Fatima, Portugal.

Her father, William Donald Ross – a banker, financier and Liberal Party stalwart – was born on a farm in Little Bras d’Or, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Jean’s mother saw her father the first time when William Ross and his family arrived on foot in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, carrying everything they owned. Their farm had failed. William left school in New Glasgow at 14 to take a job at the Bank of Nova Scotia emptying wastebaskets. Emptying wastebaskets in a completely paper-based office like a turn-of-the-century bank was an undoubtedly menial job, but also one full of possibilities for an alert young man. It was, I suppose, comparable to starting in mail room of the William Morris Agency. You’re in a position to learn a lot about a business if you empty the wastebaskets or deliver the personal mail every day.

William also had a gift for numbers. In his old age, he would relax each night in the Oak Room of his house on Crescent Road and play hand after hand of solitaire. The games he liked were the ones that required him to count the cards in order to win. Winning was the point, after all.

He was once reluctantly talked into playing a few hands of high-stakes poker at an English country house party in the 1920s. Isabel sat up waiting for him as the hour got later and later. Finally, William came to bed. He had a face like a thundercloud. “How much did you lose, Will?” Isabel asked gently. He took his time before emptying his pockets and throwing piles of sterling notes on the bed. “Ill-gotten gains. You spend it.”

Isabel was delighted. I think she bought a nice fur coat.

Isabel MacKay was a town beauty in New Glasgow, where her family had been established as churchmen and sailors for 100 years. Jean said her mother turned down 13 proposals of marriage before accepting her father. She said she’d had a premonition years before. On the train one day, Isabel saw W.D. Ross, now a well-tailored banker, walking down the aisle of the train. “That’s the man I’m going to marry” was the “wicked” thought that popped into her head. She immediately scolded herself because she knew W.D. Ross was already married.

After the first Mrs. Ross died, William began to call on Isabel, who was now living with her sister, Mrs. F.N.G. Starr, in Toronto. Jean’s father proposed to her mother in a horse-drawn hansom cab driving through Central Park in New York.

One of Jean’s early memories encapsulated her quaint belief that it was more decorous for women to support men than to compete with them. It was the first time her father let her go by herself down to the corner to buy his newspaper. In her late years, whenever we drove down St. George Street, she would recall how proud she felt that day of her father’s acknowledgement of her job well done.

Jean’s first years of school were at Mlle LeBruin’s, where all the lessons were in French. Jean was fluently bilingual, and used to dream in French as a young girl.

Her brother, John, was born when she was five. Throughout their lives, John was the object of Jean’s deep affection and her frank jealousy. He was younger, cuter, more outgoing, and a boy! I imagine Jean could have been quite a sadistic older sister. She told us how she would tease John into a rage and, when he came for her, little fists flying, she would place her hand on his forehead as he flailed away. Then she’d reach out with her other hand and tweak his nose. Each time she told us, she would demonstrate with her long arms how she would control her brother with one hand and tweak his nose with the other.

This led to the first and only athletic undertaking of gentle John’s entire life: joining the boxing team at Crescent School. Jean did not at first appreciate the significance of this development. Then there came the day when she thought she’d like to have a little more sport with John. Jean taunted John, and John obediently flew into a rage. Except this time he came towards her with his left fist up, his right hand back, and he was bobbing from side to side. He easily ducked the straight arm and went in to work the body.

Isabel came running because of the commotion, opened the door to the room, assessed the situation and closed the door. “Good,” she said. Jean never picked another fight with John.

Isabel and W.D. Ross were the Toronto yuppies of the period. W.D., a financier and director of the Bank of Nova Scotia, put up some of the early money for Branksome Hall, the private girl’s school in Toronto. Miss Edith Read, the school’s legendary and eccentric headmistress, was some kind of cousin from New Glasgow. Together they charted the successful growth of the school. The Ross Clan at Branksome is named in his honour.

Left-liberal Jean was always slightly uncomfortable with her privileged background. By the time she entered Branksome Hall as a day-girl, her father was lieutenant governor of Ontario. They lived at Government House in Chorley Park with a staff of 49 maids cooks, valets, gardeners, footmen, grooms and a butler.

Jean was driven by chauffeur to school every day. She said she would always ask to be let out a block away so she could walk in to school inconspicuously with the other girls. But she was not inconspicuous. A semi-celebrity all through Branksome, Jean was never sure which girls liked her for herself and which girls liked her because they wanted to be invited to the lieutenant governor’s annual garden party and get their names in the social columns.

A kind of social apotheosis came for Jean one night in 1927, during the state visit of the Edward, the Prince of Wales. An impressionable ten year-old, Jean watched in awe as her older half-sister Isabel drive off to a ball with the Prince of Wales on one arm and his brother, the future King George VI, on the other.

Soon after the Crash of 1929, W.D. Ross asked to leave the lieutenant governorship, and moved his family out of Government House to 166 Crescent Road. His lieutenant governor’s salary of $10,000 didn’t begin to cover the household expenses at Chorley Park, and he could no longer afford to pay the difference, as he had, from his own pocket.

He didn’t let his family know how bad things were. He quietly borrowed the money to buy Crescent Road from his brother-in-law, Dr. Starr. The penny dropped for wife Isabel when William told her she’d have to send back the Persian carpets she’d ordered to Eaton’s.

Jean went into boarding at Branksome around this time. She said she thought the boarders had more fun, which was probably true. Once, when her gym class was jogging through Rosedale, Jean took a quick detour to Crescent Road and shouted in the kitchen window “Send over a dozen éclairs! We’re having a midnight feast!”

Later that day, W.D.Ross’ chauffeur, Joseph, arrived with a package for Miss Ross. At midnight, her friends snuck into her room and they all ate the éclairs by flashlight.

Jean was the jumping centre for a championship Branksome Hall basketball team as well as an A student, so she expected to be made a prefect in 1935. When she was not picked, and neither was her best friend, Esme Pattison, they were highly indignant. They went to headmistress Miss Read’s office and complained. Miss Read considered the matter and gave Jean the dubious gift of answered prayers.

At assembly next morning, Miss Read announced that there were two more prefects this year: Esme Pattison and Jean Ross.

From her mother, Jean inherited a love of drawing and painting, but was urged by her father to go to secretarial school rather than art school after she graduated from Victoria College.

Jean did as she was told, and learned to type and file and format a letter and, after the course, was hired as a secretary in a downtown office. Soon, instead of taking dictation, she was drafting all her boss’ correspondence and just presenting it to him for signature.

Her love life through this time was unremarkable and unadventurous. From schoolgirl crushes at Branksome, she soon decided that a neighbour, Freddie Rowell, was pretty cute. He took her dancing one evening at the Palais Royale when they were both about 16. They were having so much fun that they missed the last streetcar at 10 o’clock. They walked back to Rosedale and, when they got to Jean’s house, her father was there waiting for her. Jean turned to thank Freddie for a wonderful evening, but he had already taken to his heels, vaulted the hedge and was halfway to the street.

A more serious romance developed later on during summers in the islands of Go Home Bay, Georgian Bay. Edward Wallace was the son of a University of Toronto professor who also had a cottage at Go Home Bay. They both joined the air force at the start of World War Two, and were engaged to be married when word came that Ed, who was flying Spitfires (the only fighter he could fit his long legs into), was missing in action over the English Channel and presumed dead.

Jean said she went numb, and sometimes thought this was rather a better way to be. No emotions, no disappointments. When her brother John was sent home at the end of the war with his jaw wired shut because of a bullet wound, he was alarmed at how passive Jean was becoming. After her father died of a stroke in 1947, all she did was accompany her widowed aunt and mother to church and to ladies’ tea parties. John urged her to take an adventure. Get out of Toronto and see and do things.

Dutifully, Jean sailed for Shanghai, China, in 1947 to sightsee and visit her friends from college: Jean and Bill Joliffe.

Bill Joliffe was attached to the Canadian High Commission in Shanghai and they were thoroughly in the swim of the diplomatic life of the cosmopolitan city. Jean ventured by herself up to Peking. There she found her Mlle LeBruin French came in handy since French was the second language of the educated Chinese elite. She met some artists and found a teacher, Wang Chíing Fung. Soon, she was wiring the Joliffes in Shanghai saying she was going to extend her stay in Peking a few more weeks. She got an apartment and became friends with Irene Rayburn, a pretty, outgoing, polyglot Russian girl.

Irene took her to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. She knew French and Italian, as well as Chinese and Russian. Her job was in the flight dispatch office of Civil Air Transport, a private freight airline that was hired mainly by the Kuomintang or Nationalist Government and the C.I.A. to fly provisions to besieged Chinese cities during the Chinese Revolution. Pilots for CAT were paid in American dollars ,and they lived very well. Irene was the darling of CAT; she was a brilliant flirt, and although she never married, she reveled in the attention of men. The only two men who ever really won her heart, she said, were Chou En Lai and Dag Hammerskjold, the first secretary general of the United Nations.

One day, Irene asked Jean to come to dinner with her to one of the pilots’ houses. She didn’t want to go alone. His roommate was just coming in from Mukden, and the four of them might even get in a rubber of bridge after dinner.

Jean was happy to come, and the two 20-somethings made their way one spring evening to a tidy walled compound in a residential part of Peking. The house had been built for the third son of the Emperor of China, and had a magnificent tree in the courtyard that had grown from a cutting from the Bodhi Tree in India – the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment.

The size of the house and the household was testimony to the free fall of the Chinese currency, the Yuan. My father said that, at the time, housewives would have to haul shopping bags of currency to buy groceries. Of course, counterfeiters took advantage, but my father said that when the exchange rate got completely loony and the money was worth less than the paper it was printed on, sheets of newsprint bundled between two 1000-Yuan notes were accepted. Being paid in U.S. dollars made CAT pilot Bob Brongersma and his roommate, Bruno Skoggard situational billionaires.

Bruno, Jean’s date, was late. Weather had delayed his flight, but he was all shy smiles and apologies when he finally arrived in his flight suit and ducked in to the bathroom.

Bruno Skoggard reentered 20 minutes later, showered and shaved, in freshly pressed shirt and shorts. Jean was disarmed to see a half-inch of boxer short peeking out from under his shorts. Bruno had no idea and proceeded to become the life of the party, as he was wont to do throughout his life.

Bruno and Jean were attracted to each other. Jean said the second thing she noticed about him, after his boxer shorts, were his eyebrows. He had a superfluity and he was nearly facial hairless. She also discovered that their shared taste ran to the classics in both music and literature.

A whirlwind courtship followed with picnics at the summer palace and bicycle excursions to the Great Wall. Bruno and Jean were married at home in Peking in September, 1948.

Much of the Chinese countryside had already fallen to Mao Tse Tung’s Eighth Route Army and, in a matter of months, Bruno and Jean moved south to Canton where the headquarters of Bruno’s airline, Civil Air Transport, had relocated. The fall of a government during a revolution is a desperate and crazy time. Bruno wrote evocatively about it in his best novel, China Hand.

Jean was pregnant and soon unto them a child was born. I was named Ross MacKay after Jean’s parents. Jean was a little bit disappointed in me at first. There was another baby who was so much fatter, with nice rosy cheeks. The Chinese nurses tried to console her, telling her, “But your baby is so funny!”

It turned out the ruddy baby had roseola.

In a matter of weeks, however, even Canton was no longer safe, and Bruno and Jean and I took off from Canton and flew through south Asia with overnight stops in India, Egypt, Italy, Norway and finally Canada.

Along the way, local women would size Jean up as a neophyte and impatiently snatch me from her, fold me up in a neat bundle and hand me back.

We settled in Levittown, New York; the quintessential American suburb with tract houses all alike on a former potato field. Bruno’s job at the ad agency Fuller Smith and Ross was waiting for him – the same one he quit to go fly planes in China and write the great American novel two years before.

Ad agency life, which involved a lot of client entertaining, appealed to Jean so-so, and she really didn’t make any friends of her own until they moved from Levittown to an old whaling village, and WASP bastion, Cold Spring Harbor, on the north shore of Long Island, New York.

Since returning from China with a raft of paintings done in the classic Chinese manner in brush and ink and mounted on scrolls, Jean had had several shows. Her shows at Eaton’s College Street and the Picture Loan Society in Toronto, and later at the Harbor Gallery in Cold Spring Harbor, earned respectful reviews and sold well.

She was lucky in finding a drawing class taught nearby by the great German Expressionist George Grosz. His scathing drawings of Weimar Germany and Nazi fat cats earned him the personal animus of the influential art critic Adolph Hitler.

Jean found herself sitting next to a well-lubricated George Grosz at a party one evening. He told her about his relationship with his own mother, who never liked his famous Weimar drawings, because they featured ugly people doing ugly things. “You’re so much more talented than that,” she complained. “Why don’t you do a simple drawing to show people how well you can draw.” George Grosz spent many hours on his next work, a meticulous drawing showing every hair of a mouse caught in a trap. He took it to his mother and tossed it in her lap: “There you are, mother. Now are you satisfied?”

At this point George Grosz’ wife intervened, sensing Grosz was getting emotional, and took his arm. “Come on George, We’ve got to go home now.”

Jean took herself seriously as an artist, and she was. Drawings she did at art school are incisive and beautifully realized. When people talk about artistic gifts, they mean exactly what Jean was doing in these drawings. She is demonstrating a complete comfort with her medium, and is able to use its particular expressive vocabulary to say what she wants to say about the parade of humanity that was brought before art students to study at Central Tech in Toronto in the 1940s.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Jean was a fairly typical suburban American housewife. She shopped and cooked and cleaned for her family every day. She kissed her commuter husband good-bye every morning and welcomed him home at night with a martini and a home cooked meal.

During this time, Bruno and Jean evolved a Christmas tradition in Cold Spring Harbor – the glogg party. An invitation to the Skoggard’s glogg party, Jean said, was one “no one turned down, alas.” On a Saturday night in December, the ground floor of our balloon-construction Dutch colonial home on Main Street would teem with people from all of Bruno and Jean’s varied circles: school teachers, ad agency colleagues and clients, local artists, high school buddies, and friends or relatives from Toronto. Typically over 100 people would arrive to ritualistically sample a cup of Bruno’s glogg, which expressed his belief that sufficient quantities of vodka plus spices, raisins and slivered almonds in the Swedish hot-wine punch could finesse the shortcomings of any vin ordinaire, the main ingredient. Jean and her mother-in-law, Hilma Skoggard, would spend days rolling and frying hundreds of Swedish meatballs and baking dozens of Swedish Christmas cookies, make up spreads of pickled herring, hard bread and sour cream to prepare for the glogg party.

My brothers and I got to pass some hors d’oeuvres before dinner, but were soon sent upstairs to our rooms. Instead of going to bed, however, we would sit in our pajamas and watch from the second floor landing through the banister spindles as the grown ups got louder and more perplexing.

Jean was Presbyterian; her mother’s family included more than one Presbyterian minister in Scotland way back, and then in Canada. We went to the Presbyterian Church in the next town to get Bengt and the twins baptized. A few blocks down Main Street in Cold Spring Harbor, however, there was an 1840s Methodist Church whose octogenarian pastor, Reverend Jackson, was a neighbour. Perhaps that is how both Bruno and Jean got involved in renovating the church, and building a social room and kitchen off the back. This became the church we attended, and where we were confirmed.

At some point, for some reason, Jean decided she should teach Sunday school at the First Methodist Church. One morning, after reading the story of the return of the prodigal son, she hoped the children would take something away from the scene where the prodigal son returns and his father is so happy he kills a fatted calf to celebrate, while the dutiful hard-working son who always worked for his father got nothing.

Jean asked her class, “Does anyone think the father was unfair?”

Up shot one little hand “It wasn’t very fair to the calf,” said Tina Oderwald.

Jean bit her lip and eventually the class broke up as church was ending upstairs. Jean thought the girl’s parents would like to hear of their daughter’s observation and she told them.

Next Sunday, little Tina Oderwald sat with her “face like a thundercloud,” as Jean put it. Finally, Jean had to find out what was bothering her. “You told my parents,” said the little girl. “They told everyone at Sunday dinner what I said about the prodigal son and the calf and everybody laughed.”

“But Tina, it’s a wonderful gift to be able to make people laugh,” protested Jean.

“Yes, but not at other people,” said Tina.

Jean apologized to Tina Oderwald, but didn’t begin to doubt the authenticity of her calling to be Sunday school teacher until some weeks later, Palm Sunday, when Jean thought it would be so sweet to have her little charges greet the congregation as church broke up on Main Street with bunches of palm leaves.

She had brought a pair of sturdy kitchen shears and piled her class into our Volkswagen micro-bus for the short drive down to the harbour, where Jean knew that, even if there were no palm leaves in Cold Spring Harbor, at least there were plentiful bull rushes which looked the same more or less.

The kids were terribly excited about the whole thing, and immediately began to compete for who would lead the triumphal procession. Jean didn’t think too much about it, and told them whoever found the biggest palm leaf could lead the parade.

No sooner did one of them claim to have the biggest palm than the whole Sunday school class – boys in their blazers and ties, girls in their crinoline dresses and mary janes – spread out over the marsh and, not waiting for Mrs. Skoggard to come with the scissors, tried to pull the bull rushes out by the roots. Soon, the whole class was screaming and bloody from cut hands. Jean’s plan for a triumphal march of the innocents into Jerusalem turned into a grotesque parody of crucifixion, as ten little boys and girls came running down the street crying their heads off and bleeding from their hands.

Jean said she definitely got the impression God was trying to tell her something, and she wasn’t sure what it was, so she retired from Sunday school.

Around this time, Jean also organized an alternative regatta at our cottage in Georgrian Bay. This was to happen after the official Madawaska Club Regatta at Go Home Bay. Just like the real regatta, there would be swimming and rowing and paddling races and a diving competition. Participating were our neighbours and relatives, most of whom were too young to have made much of a splash at the Go Home Regatta. Jean made all the prizes. There were plastic egg cups glued on empty tuna cans as trophies for the champion divers, and cupcakes with numbers 1, 2, 3 and so on in blueberries for everyone else.

No one was ever injured, which encouraged Jean, so the tradition went on for several years.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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