Filling in the Pieces

How I received help in piecing together the story of my great great aunt

I can’t remember when it was exactly that that my cousin Siggi first told me of my great great aunt, Katrín Geirsdóttir, but I remember that her story touched me. She had the bad luck of being born into poverty but falling in love with a man of standing. She bore him a child but he didn’t want to or wasn’t allowed to marry her. Another man wanted to marry her and take the child as his but she was proud and demanded that the father of the boy acknowledge him. Instead the child was taken away from her, as poor unmarried women were not allowed raise their own children in those days. She then moved across the country, met another man, had with him two children and moved with the young family to Canada. We didn’t really know more.
It wasn’t Katrín’s emigration that had touched me but the love story that occurred in the south of Iceland, the child torn from its mother, her pride, the question why she rejected the man who wanted to marry her knowing that she was risking her future with her son. She must have been hoping for a better life of higher standing. A hope that was all in vain, it seemed
Through the years I have researched her story, tried to add more pieces trying to understand what kind of a life she had lead. I’ve read everything that I have found that could help me in this search. However, the most important part of the search has been the people that have helped me. I want to tell you about them and how the kindness of family, friends and strangers has helped me piece the story together.
It was during my years in Winnipeg, in July 2000 to be exact, that I received an e-mail from my cousin Siggi (Sigurjón Vilhjálmsson). He’s the one who had originally told me about Katrín and from him I’ve learned more about my mom’s paternal family than anyone else. Siggi told me that he had been speaking to a relative of ours, Jóhanna Guðmundsdóttir, who had been to Manitoba several times and she had told him that Katrín’s children, Guðrún and Björn had lived in Manitoba. Both had died without any children of their own. Along with the letter, Siggi sent me information about the family as well as a photocopy from Vesturfaraskrá where Katrín is listed along with husband Skúli Þorsteinsson and two children. Siggi asked me if I could try to find out more, seeing that I was in Winnipeg.
This was before the time of Facebook but the Icelandic National League of North America had a fairly active mailing list where you could post messages. I decided to try to use that list, so I posted a message where I asked if anyone knew the name Katrín Geirsdóttir and what had happened to her. Not many hours passed before I received mail from Nelson Gerrard, the great Manitoban teacher and historian. He hadn’t known Katrín but for what seems a sheer coincidence, he had letters of hers, borrowed from one Lorraine Sigvaldason of Stonewall, Manitoba. He offered to make me a copy of the letters and invited me over for coffee.
These letters more than hundred years old turned out to be a treasure for me. Amongst them were letters from Katrín’s parents, my great great grandfather and grandmother, as well as from her brother, my great grandfather. It particularly struck me how his handwriting was the same as that of my afi, his son. This wouldn’t have been strange if had he raised him, but my afi was raised by foster parents and not by his own parents. But that’s a side story.
It was immediately clear, though, that the letters wouldn’t tell me anything about my great great aunt’s stay in Canada because only one of the letters was written during her years in that country. All the other ones were from her time in Iceland. But what did that tell me? Did her family stop writing to her after she moved west or were only those letters lost? Somehow that didn’t seem so believable and it made me think about what I had read, that many people at home weren’t happy with the emigration. This also fit with what cousin Siggi had told me about great grandfather. Whenever Siggi asked him about Katrín he only answered with: “She moved out west.” And that was it. No more discussions of Katrín.
Nelson’s letter was not the only response I got to my query on the INL mailing list. I got a phone call from Stan Jonason of Marquette, Manitoba. Stan hadn’t known Katrín himself either but he knew a woman named Anna Johnson who did and he offered to take me to her. In his exceptional Canadian courtesy, he picked me up in Winnipeg and drove me to Oak Point where Katrín and her son had lived next to Anna. Anna received us graciously, gave us coffee and cake and then told me everything she had known about Katrín. Before this her life in Canada had been a total blank for me, but now suddenly the picture had started to come together and I learned so much more about Katrín and particularly about her children. I found out that Björn and Guðrún had not been easy names for English-speakers, so they became Barney and Gertie. And they took up the family name of Skulason. So now my great great aunt was Katrín Skulason and not Geirsdóttir. I learned about Gertie’s husband and their life in Winnipeg, where they seem to have done fairly well for themselves and I learned about their later years. I also found out that Katrín’s life hadn’t been total dance of roses in Canada either. According to stories, her husband Skúli had become mentally ill and ended his life in a psychiatric institution. I haven’t found any corroboration for this but it is clear from later information that he disappeared early from the family’s life.
After our visit to Anna, Stan took me to Katrín’s grave and I picked some flowers and lay them down by her headstone. It was strange to sit at the final resting place of this relative of mine that I had never met and say goodbye to her, before I had ever really gotten to know her properly.
Not long after I came home from Oak Point I received another letter from Anna and in it lay yet another treasure — a picture of Katrín. The first I had ever seen. No picture that I know of had existed with anyone in my family in Iceland but here she was and she looked so familiar. Same strong chin as in my family. The same broad nose. I had absolutely no doubt that she was my relative.
But the letter from Anna was not the only one I received after I came home from the Oak Point trip. Stan had become my strongest supporter in this endeavor and he went searching for more. He had gone through books about Icelandic settlements and in two of them he found information about the family. In one of them Barney Skulason himself had written about his childhood. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say in the clippings he sent me from which book this was and I have yet to find out. But this description was the third treasure in my search. The Skulason family life was getting clearer to me.
Stan also connected me with Lorraine Sigvaldason, the lady who owned the letters that Nelson had so nicely photocopied for me. I called her and she invited me for coffee in Stonewall where she lived at the time. However, this was Manitoba winter and just before I headed out, Lorraine called me and told me the road was closed. I better stay home. So, I postponed that trip and when I finally got around to a visit she had moved to Riverton. We had a wonderful chat and she told me how she had been the executor to the Skulason estate. As neither Barney nor Gertie had an heir, their possessions were sold and then treated according to Canadian law. But Lorraine had kept a small box of personal belongings. She had hoped that one day she would meet someone who would appreciate them. She handed me a box. In it were not only the letters that Nelson had already returned but the family photographs of Gertie Skulason. Amongst them was a picture of Katrín Geirsdóttir with her two young children. It was the only photo of its kind in the albums. All the other were from Gertie’s years in Winnipeg, but that one picture was the fourth and biggest treasure of them all, a fairly young Katrín with her little children Björn and Guðrún.
Stan Jonason, Anna Johnson, Lorraine Sigvaldason and Nelson Gerrard; all these people helped me to piece together the story of Katrín Skulason, nee Geirsdóttir and her children Barney and Gertie. It’s not a full picture, there are holes everywhere, but it’s part of the picture of my formerly lost great-great aunt’s life and I hoped that one day I might be able to share that picture with all of you. If anyone knows anything more about Katrín, I’d love to hear it.