My Vancouver Roots

I know this isn’t a novel or some sort of compelling literature that requires a dedication, but I would like to dedicate this post to my father, aka T.O.M. (The Old Man)…

Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting some family for the very first time. Turns out my Canadian roots go farther back than I realized. I always knew that my father’s mother was of Scottish-Canadian descent, but apart from that and knowing just a few bits of family history, I unfortunately didn’t know quite as much as I do about my other roots. Meeting my family filled in a lot of the gaps, but because this trip has me on such a tight schedule I was only able to spend a few hours with my cousins.

I took the SkyTrain from Vancouver to where my great-aunt Betty lives in Richmond, a suburb of Van City. I unfortunately got on the wrong bus from the train station though, resulting in a desperately placed phone call and my cousin having to pick me up from some random street corner. I already felt like this monumental meeting was starting off on the wrong foot. However, my nerves were eased the moment my cousin Dougal arrived. I could immediately tell that this lady was good people (and not just because we share the same genes).

I got a brief tour of Richmond on the way to Auntie Betty’s home, enjoying a chat with Dougal during the drive. When we arrived at the house I was warmly greeted by Betty, her daughter and Dougal’s sister Janet, and her daughter-in-law Janet. I hadn’t seen Betty in close to twenty years, so I was a bit misty when I saw her again for the first time. Betty is now in her early nineties and is my oldest living relative. She may damn well also be my sassiest aunt with a memory that’s as sharp as a tack.

We sat down for tea and chatted away like five ladies with no agenda. Within that short time I found out more about my grandmother and her family than I’ve known my whole life. Betty had started compiling the family history in these huge archival books a number of years ago, having collected old photos that dated back a few generations. She even added more recent photos that we sent her over the years. I saw pictures of my grandmother in her early twenties, my father as a child, both of my grandparents together plus other family photos of my grandmother with her siblings and parents. I definitely had to bite my lip to keep back my happy tears.

The entire time I was flipping through the pictures Betty kept on referring to my grandfather as “Mac”. I always knew it was his nickname, as it’s a shortened version of our last name, but I didn’t realize my grandmother’s side of the family (the Livingston’s) called him that regularly. The first time she said it, it caught me off guard to be honest. His nickname obviously had an influence on my choice for this blog’s name, and I’ve sort of held on to it my whole life, secretly hoping it would adapt to become my own moniker. But having never known the man it just made it a bit surreal for me to hear her use it so casually.

I learned a lot about my great-grandfather, Archie Livingston, from Betty’s stories. My father is a spitting image of him, and I can see traits of Archie in myself, my sister and even my toddler niece, as well as in Auntie Betty’s son Bruce and Betty’s grand kids. Those Livingston genes are definitely strong.

Known as “Grandpa Livingston”, Archie had immigrated from Oban, Scotland when he was only nineteen. A blacksmith by trade, he ended up in Cabri, Saskatchewan where he eventually opened the first John Deere in town. While in Cabri, Archie married my great-grandmother, Lillian. I unfortunately don’t know her last name, but I was told that she is of Canadian descent. I will definitely have to do more research on her part of the family.

Archie and Lillian had eight children while in Cabri. Unfortunately two passed away at a young age, leaving my grandmother Marion, her four sisters and one brother (Auntie Betty’s husband). In 1929 Archie packed up the family and moved them all to Vancouver. He became a business man at this point and bought into property in the financial district downtown. Betty told me about the different locations the family lived in and was even able to give me addresses. I wasn’t kidding when I said she was sharp as a tack. Her memory is better than mine!

Before I left I made note of the different locations she had mentioned, knowing full well I was going to make a pilgrimage to the places of my family history. My cousin Janet offered to drive me back to Vancouver as she had to catch a ferry to the Sunshine Coast, and because I had an interview scheduled and was running short of time I took the ride. Janet was gracious enough to show me the house my family used to live in when they moved from Saskatchewan as well as the apartment on English Bay that they moved to afterwards. She also showed me the neighbourhood that she had grown up in. I was in awe the entire way back.

I’m kicking myself for not allowing more time for Vancouver and my family, but it’ll just be an excuse to come back next year. This visit made my heart grow. I grew up not knowing my father’s side of the family that well, as both of his parents passed away before I was even born. Plus, once my parents immigrated from the West Indies they ended up in Toronto, not Vancouver. Because of this I always felt like there was a void that accompanied the Livingston side of the family tree. However, I always felt a connection with Marion. It could be because I’m named after her, or because I can see traits of her in myself and my sister. I even wear one of her rings that’s engraved with an “M” to remind myself of her. Thankfully, the void that I felt growing up is dissipating, and all it took was one visit.

The day after my tea with the ladies I was supposed to go on a whale watching tour, but due to weather conditions it was cancelled. I took the opportunity to trek out to the locations that Janet had showed me so I could take pictures for my father and have a moment to myself amongst the important addresses of Livingston history.

My first stop was 555 Burrard Street in Vancouver’s downtown financial district. My great-grandfather owned stakes in the office building that once stood here. The building that now resides on this spot is Two Bentall Centre, built in 1969. Even though it’s not the same building, I still took pictures to show the location. It’s quite a swanky piece of property, so for a blue-collar girl it’s a bit unreal to know that my great-grandfather once owned property here. While I stood there amongst the suits and pencil skirts making their way to work on a Monday morning, it occurred to me that my great-grandfather probably also once stood in the same spot. I was definitely on the brink of tears at this point as well. I’m such a sap.

My second stop was the first house my great-grandfather purchased when the family moved to Vancouver from Saskatchewan. This was by far the most ethereal part of the pilgrimage for me. As I stood in front of the house (well, across the street, didn’t want to seem like a creeper), I realized that for the first time in my life I was able to stand in front of a building and say “my family lived here almost one hundred years ago”. I’m a first-generation Canadian, so I never had the feeling of having strong roots in this country. I know of the house my mother’s family used to live in back in Georgetown, Guyana, and the houses that my dad used to live in in Guyana and Barbados, but I’ve never seen them in person. To have the chance to stand in front of the house my grandmother grew up in; to see the trees that were probably lining the street when she was a kid; to know that her and her family once walked those streets — it just blew my mind. Again, tears…

I will forever be grateful for having the opportunity to visit Betty and her daughters. This was my first visit to Vancouver, but I’m damned sure this will not be my last.

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One thought on “My Vancouver Roots

  1. Pingback: Using travel to discover your heritage | Meandering Mac

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