Share this story
As Charmaine Bayntun and Rhonda Yanko sit in the kitchen of their late parents' home in North Burnaby, the stories practically come pouring out.
The rooms may be almost empty, but the house they called home for most of their lives is filled with memories.
Rhonda pulls open a kitchen drawer and pulls out 10 vegetable peelers, a symbol of the countless potatoes peeled for dinners and produce peeled for canning. There's the tile mermaid mural their father, a tile setter, installed in the basement bathroom, that was sure to make grown men blush from its anatomical correctness. And outside there's the towering walnut tree planted when Charmaine was born.
For the most part, they're typical stories of families living in Burnaby in the 1950s and '60s, and they're just the sort of memories the Burnaby Village Museum is always searching for, said museum curator Lisa Codd.
Charmaine, 57, who's the principal at Confederation Park elementary, and Rhonda, 59, who lives in Calgary, contacted the museum about donating some of the objects they found while clearing out the family home—from an old floor polisher, and a coal-wood stove, to handmade Barbie doll clothes—and ended up sharing their childhoods.
John Yanko was one of 13 children from Kelliher, Sask. At age 20, he met his future wife Lillian while visiting relatives in Burnaby in the 1940s.
Lillian was born in The Pas, Man. After her family moved to Nelson, B.C., her dad worked for Canadian Pacific Railway which enabled her to travel for free by train.
Her first trip on her own was as a 14-year-old, visiting her godmother, also a Burnaby resident.
John and Lillian were both of Ukrainian heritage and thus part of a fairly small and tight-knit community.
For four years, they courted. Charmaine says she found a letter he sent Lillian that was not in his handwriting but in his voice indicating he'd dictated it to someone. "He was asking if he could phone her at Sunday at 7 p.m, to ask for her hand in marriage."
After they married, they lived in the basement of John's sister's place on Union Street until he saved the $400 it cost to buy the property at 7391 Broadway, a lot subdivided by the farmer who owned the lot next door. The lot on the other side of the farmer was bought by a Yanko uncle, and across the street eventually lived other aunts, uncles and cousins.
As for John and Lillian's place, it was built as they could afford it. First came the basement, where the family lived until John could finish the upper level.
Their large backyard housed chickens and two pigs (named Oscar and Joe), and a large vegetable garden. The farmer next door was allowed to keep his goat and horse until the 1970s.
This was the 1950s and there was no Burnaby Mountain Golf Course or Simon Fraser University. The Lake City area was nothing but ponds with bullrushes, where they'd skate in the winter. Broadway was a one-lane dirt road filled with potholes.
Charmaine sees the irony in today's concerns about oil spills when back then, one of the highlights for local kids was the oil truck coming around and pouring oil on the road to keep the dust down, creating puddles of the black stuff in the process.
"We used to love riding our bikes on that because we thought it was like pavement," she said with a laugh.
On her days off, Lillian would often lock the screen door so she could clean the house without the kids around. She'd leave a couple bananas on the back porch in case they got hungry, and tell them, "Don't come home until it's dark."
Their playground was pretty much the woods around them, forest they shared with cougars, pheasants and on at least one running-off-screaming occasion for the kids, bears.
Working at Woodward's
Charmaine and Rhonda still speak in wonder at what their parents accomplished under some trying circumstances.
Before the girls were born, Lillian worked at the downtown Woodward's store as a cashier. Knowing she'd be let go if she was pregnant, when she was expecting Rhonda, her mom in Nelson sewed her several versions of the same outfit. They all used the same material, but each was a little bit larger than the last to accommodate her expanding girth.
"She said nobody questioned why she wore the same thing every day," Charmaine said.
Lillian left her job to be a stay-at-home mom, but that changed several years later when John and Charmaine were in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver. Charmaine was in the back seat and with no seatbelts at the time, John put out his arm to save her from flying through the windshield.
She hit the dash instead, damaging her teeth when they hit the radio dials.
"Nobody thought about dad," she recalled. Granted, he was telling everyone he was fine and only had broken ribs.
But through taking the full impact of the steering wheel in his chest, John also suffered a blood clot that eventually moved, causing a massive heart attack six months later. He spent three months in hospital and at age 39, was disabled and unable to work for a few years.
There was no Medicare at the time. To pay hospital and other bills, Lillian went back to work at Woodward's. The family lived off their huge garden, canning that Lillian's mom sent from Nelson on the Greyhound bus and moose and deer meat in their freezer. Neighbours used to leave them groceries.
"Dad refused to go on welfare," Rhonda recalled. "He said he'd shoot himself first."
Charmaine recalled they were the only family they knew at school whose mom worked. Lillian did so out of necessity while John recovered, but then continued on afterwards because she enjoyed it.
During his recovery, John would also help the girls with their homework, instilling in them a love of education in the process. He'd been pulled out of school after Grade 6 and rented out to a farmer to pick stones, so he always wished he'd been able to complete his education.
"He helped us keep focused on learning, but he was learning himself at the same time," Charmaine said of their homework sessions.
It was during this time that John had a visit from an official from the tile-setter's union, asking for his union card back since his illness made him too much of a risk for anyone to hire him.
John refused to cancel his union membership, but was so shaken by the conversation that when a door-to-door salesman, a Fuller Brush man, came knocking a few hours later, he was so concerned he refused to leave until Lillian and the girls returned from their piano lessons and took him to the hospital.
Despite being shaken, the meeting likely strengthened John's resolve. He eventually formed his own tile-setting company, and worked until age 82.
John died in 2010 at age 86 and Lillian passed away last December. They were married 63 years.
Charmaine and Rhonda have sold the family home, neither being able to afford to buy out the other at today's real estate prices. Their realtor told them the house is a "tear-down" and the new owner could potentially build a 7,000-square-foot house on the lot.
"I don't think I'm going to drive down this street for a long, long, long time," Charmaine said sadly on a recent afternoon. "It's a final goodbye to mom and dad, all our childhood memories are in this home."
The Burnaby Village Museum will help preserve some of those memories for future generations, said Codd, with the museum keeping the artifacts while the City of Burnaby Archives will house donated photos and documents.
Codd stressed they're just as interested in stories from the '50s, '60s, '70s and beyond as they are those from the 1920s.
"People might not always realize their story is part of a bigger story."