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September 24, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash | [ssba]

The Apples are not Flavoured by a Perfect Tree

Standing alone in the bathroom of an isolated Canterbury hotel, I am chanting an ode to hundreds of years of crying newborns with each dollop of conditioner I prise onto my hand. It’s dark outside and the window is iced over; the locals will only see my naked silhouette. Let them remain at that distance, I don’t want them to know my secret. This 10 p.m. is the summit, just like 11 p.m. will be too: the pinnacle of past. Each time I run my hands through my hair. Each time I drink the milk from the bottom of my cereal. Each time I just want to be alone. I am my tūpuna.


My secret is also kept quiet by the neighbours of the Darfield Motel and any so-called farming, surfing, dancing, town in the world. Everyone in the present is in the same boat. We carry within us the blood of our ancestors, our whakapapa. We are every regret Great-Great-Uncle Jim had, every sheep shorn, every korowai worn. I, for one, know that my hands work the blessings of those in the sky, in the sea—and because of that, they’ll reach for the history books anywhere. Maybe that’s why you don’t mind a bit of noise when you fall asleep; you are koro’s snores and Nan’s 3 a.m. TV shows. 


Like row upon row of grapes waiting to be wine, lines of ancestry are plotted. They are envisioned symbols on pages, known as ‘family trees’. Lives, fashions and passions become spectacularly linear topographic maps for a seven-year-old to drive their Hot Wheels across. Each progression of a family tree is like discovering the Nile all over again, but finding there’s gold at the bottom. You’re born and there goes another straight line. A shift in the format, but a brand new name. We crave this discovery, validation for the quirks we each have. But most importantly, we want to see that we own our families and bodies. We want our existence to belong, to fit in the place we have no choice but to fit. Besides, sometimes it’s just so satisfying to see so many straight, clear-cut lines. 


That being said, I want to strongly suggest a referendum on ‘family trees’. Can we change their name to ‘fucking confusing vines that are missing all their fruit’?

Coming from a family with head-splittingly complicated generations, second marriages, and alienated children who form lines of their own, I struggled as a kid to see my family as anything but a pile of tangled leaves growing wild. Years ago, my Aunty produced a five-generation family tree for a whānau wānanga that seemed to want to burst from its linearity. I took my pencil around the marae, and with the help of my little cousins, we played fill-in-the-blanks, but with real lives. I wasn’t going to let it be that I was a blank. The plotting and searching fostered then is yet to end. I have to keep updating this tiny image at least twice a year now. When I’m the soil for my kids, there’ll be no space left on the page.


The impossibility of making a tree of mysterious tūpuna stared me in the face when, at the end of Year 13, one of my close classmates told me that my uncle was her biological grandfather. To me, he is like a grandfather I never had. To her, it’s the same. Except he is an unspoken: a broken line, a branch snapped from the tree. How do we make a straight line of this confusion? 


What scares me is that in this tradition, almost everyone is an impossibility. What happened to every woman that was ever left off a tree structured to only regard the grandfathers, fathers, and sons? Maybe she was an existing non-existence. I think the straight line from father to son is her backbone, dug from the earth in which she rests. 


Those that carry the surname, typically the males of every generation, must look at the sprawling piece of paper and watch its weight crash over them. Wherever there is a name, there is lineage and stories and people who come before with their own legacies. Someone in each generation of your family’s tree needs to do the digging to bring back the burnt-off, cast away family nomads. 


The conundrum comes from the shape and form. Names on a page with a line connecting them seem incapable of describing the way my grandfather looked at my little brother. In his grandson, he would see part of the son nature refused him, with four girls instead. These lines cannot release the hunted whales of our pasts back into the ocean. They can’t account for those who made others’ lives a misery. 


I remember a family tree one of my classmates drew up in primary school. It traced their blood all the way back to the vikings. This would’ve been an easy way to collect up and tie together everyone’s whānau lines when New Zealand had a population of 1 million. But in our vastly interlocking, intersecting, and—in some places—slightly incestuous world, it seems better to just accept that family is family, ohana is ohana, and whānau is certainly whānau—no matter how topsy turvy. 


I don’t want to have to wrap lines around broken marriages and write in a new baby to the tree every month. I want my family to be my family, despite the lines and wrinkles. 


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