You gotta talk Englisk
Conversations with Morey Skaret
Morest Layton “Morey” Skaret was born on August 2, 1913, the second of six children. His mother was a North Dakota schoolteacher, his father a Norwegian immigrant in search of free, farmable land. Ida and Elling Skaret homesteaded 160 acres in southeastern Alberta, Canada. The young family—and their warmth-producing animals, especially on chilly nights—lived in a sod house, or “soddy.” Morey’s father would later build the first wood-framed house in the area.
Elling Skaret was not only the first homesteader in the area; he was a resourceful frontier craftsman, gifted artisan and font of folk wisdom as well. When the Gypsies came by with a horse to sell, for instance, he would sidle up to the animal, discreetly wedge a stick into its mouth and survey the teeth.
‘That horse is five years old,’ the Gypsy would proclaim. ‘It’s nine years old,’ Elling would respond. “Dad could read the rings on the tooth of a horse, and then get its age,” Morey recalls. “And Dad was a water-witcher, too. He learned that in Norway.”
Morest came by his name in an unusual way. His grandmother wanted to name her son after her high school professor. “‘His name is going to be Forest: F-O-R-E-S-T.’ And here she got twins!” Morey exclaims. “‘Now what in the hell am I going to name the other guy?’ So she made up the name. Lucky for me: M-O-R-E-S-T. You’ll never see that anywhere again.
“The only place I’ve seen it is on the gravestone in my grandfather’s graveyard in North Dakota: Morest, a twin to Forest. . . . I don’t know where that MOREY came from. I think it’s a nickname I picked up in high school. Or grade school, even.”
Morey and his siblings were born on the prairie, without any other children to grow up with. “When I was three or four,” he recalls, “and my brother Art was maybe five, we had some people called Zeemers, they were German. They had children our age. Dad had met them somewhere, hauling grain. That was kind of a focal point. They all came to the granary to sell their grain and they’d meet people.
“Dad and Mother talked only Norwegian, and I talked only Norwegian. So did brother Art. And so did sister Viv. And the Germans talked only German. His name was Eisentraut. Gerhardt and Herman and Adolf were the boys, and they were coming over to play with us and get acquainted.
“So here we saw, way over there—on the prairie you see about four miles—we saw a little dust. And Momma said, ‘Here come the Eisentrauts.’ And so Art and I, we were just little guys, and when we saw those boys jump out of their wagon, to come into the house and meet us, we climbed under the bed.
“Got way back—Momma had to get her broom, I remember vividly—got that broom, pushed us out, got hold of our ear. Said, ‘Now I want you to meet these boys. They have German names.’ So that’s how frightened we were of other children. We didn’t want nothin’ to do with them. ’Course we monkeyed around, and as the day went on, pretty soon we were laughing and talking. . . . ”
Another rural “neighbor,” John Bauman, had nine kids. “All born in a sod house,” Morey remembers. “And when they got another kid, he’d add on another eight-by-twelve room. He’d go out in the slough bottoms and make the sod with his plow, and haul ’em in.”
Morey’s parents taught him well. “My mother was a highly educated woman, a teacher,” Morey recalls. “We built the first schoolhouse in the area. I went to school, and Momma would tell me, ‘Now, Morest: (Morey launches into a spate of Norwegian) you gotta talk English.’
“So she taught me a little bit of English. And the poor teacher—she came from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—she’d gone to the Teachers College there. She was the only daughter of the only doctor in the whole area, so she was pampered all her life. She was a little lady, and she was kind of aloof—you know, she didn’t fit in with those German and Norwegian immigrants, up there on the prairie.”
We look through Morey’s photo album. “You know, this is my album. This isn’t my brother’s album. Did he say it was his album?”
Not much gets by Morey.
“This is a picture of me here, this little guy,” he continues. “Here’s the school I went to—gosh, these are great pictures—there’s a typical prairie homestead school group. Now this is Crow Hill School. Not very flashy, I don’t think: Crow Hill. ’Cause a lot of crows gathered on that little knoll.
“That’s me right there. And that’s my brother. And that’s Jimmy Smith. And that’s Albert Zeemer. And that’s Benny Zeemer. And that’s Martha Zeemer,” Morey says, not missing a one. “And that’s my sister, Viv, that I’m goin’ up to see today. She’s 94 years old now. And these are German kids: that’s Herman Zeemer, and that’s Adolph Eisentraut. And it goes on: they’re German and Norwegian.
“That’s me right there—the smallest guy. I was teacher’s pet, I guess. Because when we first went to school, all the German kids were chattering in German, because they hadn’t learned to speak English. And I hadn’t spoken English. My mother taught me the multiplication tables in English. And I was a star. I’m about six years old there. My mother sent a note. It said: ‘Morest can do the multiplication tables. In English.’
“So Christine, the schoolteacher, called me up. In that little country school, the teachers were very strict. They learned to be strict, you know, when they go to teacher college, because they have to be to control this bunch of wild little punks. You know, first time they’ve been to school.
“So you sit at your desk, and her desk is elevated, and she sits up there. She says, ‘Morest, your mother says that you can do the multiplication table. In Englisk?’ That’s how they pronounce “English”—the Canadians do. “Englisk.”
“I stand right up, put my hands at my sides, straight like this. ‘Yes Ma’am.’ So then she said, ‘Well, would you come up front please?’ So I had to go up front and stand on that platform. And she had complete control of all of us kids. We were scared to death of that little teacher—she weighed about 105 pounds.
‘Do it,’ she says. ‘Start NOW. Quiet in the classroom.’ So I start out: ‘One and one is two. Two and two is four. Four and four is eight. Eight and eight is sixteen. Sixteen and sixteen is thirty-two. Thirty-two and thirty-two—I have to laugh—is sixty-four.’ And the teacher said, ‘Oh, that’ll do, Morest. That’ll do. That’s very good. You may be seated.’
“You know you can’t go to your seat until she says, ‘You may be seated.’ So I went to my seat—oh, no; you gotta go to your seat and stand there, and then she says, ‘You may be seated.’”
Despite his rural upbringing, Morey was an eager student with an exceptional memory, a lifelong trait. He relished being “up on stage”; perhaps it even helped nurture his gift as a storyteller. But the lessons of the prairie were not always gentle, as Morey would learn first-hand at an early age.
Next week: We got seed grain, boys!
The First Installment of Conversations with Morey Skaret
The Third Installment of Conversations with Morey Skaret