A VERY FAM­ILY TREE

What be­gan as a post on Twit­ter about a palm tree grew into a tale of a home and a colour­ful fam­ily his­tory, Kim Knight writes

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What is a house? Four walls. A roof. A se­ries of struts and joins that wear and tear. A gau le pou tu, e le tali pou lalo.

When the mid­dle post is bro­ken, the side posts can­not with­stand.

Fanene James Joseph Meleisea was an Auck­land bus driver. His first wife was Pa­tri­cia (Papi) Soo Choon. They had 10 chil­dren, 21 grand­chil­dren, 29 great-grand­chil­dren, one great-great-grand­child and count­ing.

Their roots are in Samoa. Their roots are in Mt Roskill.

Half a century ago, Fanene dug into the dirt out the front of a four-bed­room weath­er­board state house at 21 Pinches St. He planted a phoenix palm. It grew and grew and grew.

Papi and Fanene died a decade apart. Their house is gone — bowled to make way for a mo­tor­way ex­ten­sion. But that tree?

“My grandpa planted this palm tree in a tyre about 50 years ago in front of the fam­ily house in Mt Roskill,” wrote Adeleina Loto Meleisea on her Twit­ter ac­count in Fe­bru­ary.

“Imag­ine the things it has seen. When the new mo­tor­way was put in the house was de­mol­ished but the roots of the tree had grown so deep that they couldn’t re­move it.”

She posts a pho­to­graph to her Twit­ter thread. A thick-trunked tree with a spiky head; a tiny sliver of the new mo­tor­way bound­ary fence with its retro vinyl couch-coloured stripes.

“So now it can be seen from the mo­tor­way by thou­sands of com­muters ev­ery day. I come here to think and to talk to my grandpa and grandma and to hear from them. I look at each branch, fallen and still in place and know that they all came from my grand­par­ents.”

There is a photo of Adeleina in a pink T-shirt, 10-year-old arms hang­ing loose, jaw straight to the cam­era. Weeks later, I will learn one of Fanene’s last liv­ing acts was to feed his then-baby grand­daugh­ter. But, just now, Adeleina is still a story on so­cial me­dia.

“It’s like a part of our fam­ily,” Adeleina writes. The sen­tences get shorter and the pho­to­graphs more fre­quent.

“This was my grandpa’s fu­neral, all his kids ex­cept one in front of the tree.”

Fanene’s chil­dren wear dark jack­ets, black frocks and flow­ers pinned to their lapels. The next pic­ture is Fanene. Hands as big as his head, broad shoul­ders pulling puck­ers in his suit sleeves.

“The tree planter him­self. I bet when he planted it he didn’t an­tic­i­pate that I’d be sit­ting in my car 50 years later talk­ing about him to the in­ter­net ... ”

Adeleina is tweet­ing from the driver’s seat. She posts an­other pho­to­graph, curl­ing at the edges, her grand­fa­ther and grandmother side by side on the “In Me­mo­riam” flier tucked into the sun vi­sor.

“I keep them with me wher­ever I go,” types Adeleina. “I hope one day my grand­kids think about me fondly too.”

This is a lit­tle story. Not much hap­pens in it. Ev­ery­thing hap­pens in it.

Down the bank. Past the cy­cle path and the bound­ary fence and on to the Mt Roskill ex­ten­sion of the Western Ring Route. Ac­cord­ing to Go Me­dia Bill­boards, 60,000 eyes pass this spot ev­ery day. If they looked up, just be­fore the $1.2m Ernie Pinches pedes­trian bridge, they might see a palm tree. A thick trunk, a spiky head, that started its life in a tyre.

THIS IS a story about a tree. A fam­ily tree. It’s just a tree. But have you ever been to a con­fer­ence or a church ser­vice, or any­where ac­tu­ally, with a bunch of strangers and been told to turn to the per­son next to you and in­tro­duce your­self? To shake their hand and tell them who you are? Adeleina’s tweet was that hand­shake. I wanted to know what hap­pened next. I wanted to know what had hap­pened be­fore. I wanted to know about the tree that has a fam­ily.

IT WAS 1887. The year af­ter Ro­torua’s pink and white ter­races were oblit­er­ated and the year be­fore Reefton be­came the first town in the South­ern Hemi­sphere with elec­tric­ity. New Zealand formed its 10th ever govern­ment. In Samoa, war­ships pa­trolled Apia Har­bour. It was the start of the “Samoan cri­sis”, a stand-off be­tween the United States, Ger­many and Bri­tain for con­trol of this land that had, in­ci­den­tally, al­ready been oc­cu­pied for 3000 years. That’s not an ex­act fig­ure. Maybe give or take a decade.

Any­way, it was 1887 and a man who would even­tu­ally be known as Felise Vave Leavai Meleisea was be­ing born in Vaito’omuli, Palauli. If you’re palagi, like me, it’s tricky get­ting your head around Samoan nam­ing con­ven­tions. “Meleisea”, for ex­am­ple, is a chiefly ti­tle. Some­times Felise be­comes Felix. Some­times he is Vave. Pin­ning down pa­per records is dif­fi­cult. You have to fol­low the fam­ily sto­ries.

Felise meets Ake­nese Pereira at board­ing school. She is a stu­dent from the Toke­lau Is­lands. They fall in love. They marry de­spite his fam­ily’s dis­ap­proval of this wo­man who is not Samoa-born.

Google the many per­mu­ta­tions of Felise’s name and find this, in a doc­u­ment pro­duced by New Zealand’s Min­istry of Pa­cific Peo­ple’s: “1925 — Felix Leavai, a Samoan, is one of the first Pa­cific peo­ple to be nat­u­ralised.”

Fam­ily lore places Felise as the first Samoan­born Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sioner. He loves Samoa but views New Zealand as the prover­bial “bet­ter fu­ture” for his fam­ily. In 1945, New Zealand’s en­tire Pa­cific Is­land pop­u­la­tion to­talled just 2159 peo­ple. By the 1956 Cen­sus, that num­ber had risen to 8103. And one year later, that pop­u­la­tion in­cludes Felise’s son Fanene Meleisea. One day, Fanene will plant a phoenix palm out­side a state house in Mt Roskill. One day, his grand­daugh­ter will tweet about that tree.

I’ve tracked Adeleina down to her job as a law clerk with the Of­fice of Hu­man Rights Pro­ceed­ings at New Zealand Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion. She’s 26. She can’t be­lieve her ran­dom mus­ings about a tree have re­sulted in an email from the Her­ald. The in­ter­net, eh?

Adeleina never knew her grandmother and was only 18 months old when her grand­fa­ther died.

“That’s the cool thing I love about my fam­ily. They had 10 chil­dren. They lost the ma­tri­arch and the pa­tri­arch so early, so they just kind of com­pen­sated, just to make sure that our fam­ily al­ways stayed to­gether and were still a fam­ily, even though we had no grand­par­ents.”

Is that a cul­tural thing?

“Yeah, I think so ...”

Can she ex­plain that some more?

“I’ll give it a go ... I sup­pose it’s a model of that vil­lage set-up, where ev­ery­one is looked af­ter. It’s the whole thing of rec­i­proc­ity. It’s like the most im­por­tant peo­ple are the chil­dren and the el­derly and those in the mid­dle are kind of charged with look­ing af­ter both of those.

“It’s the un­der­stand­ing that once you’re older, you’ll be looked af­ter in the same way that you looked af­ter your el­ders. And know­ing that when you were a child, you were also looked af­ter.

“My aun­ties, my un­cles, my dad, were re­ally good at trans­fer­ring that in­tan­gi­ble stuff, the love and care and con­cern and sup­port. But what they

I come here to think and to talk to my grandpa and grandma and to hear from them. I look at each branch, fallen and still in place and know that they all came from my grand­par­ents.

Adeleina Loto Meleisea

couldn’t pass down was the cul­tural knowl­edge my grand­par­ents would have had. The lan­guage, and just dif­fer­ent prac­tices, I guess that’s the kind of thing you lose when you lose your old peo­ple. And there’s the added thing of be­ing re­moved from your vil­lage and Samoa. You’re not sur­rounded by other fam­i­lies you can call on. To an ex­tent, we’ve been able to recre­ate that, es­pe­cially in our com­mu­ni­ties in South and West Auck­land. But it’s just never the same.”

By the 1966 Cen­sus, New Zealand’s Pa­cific pop­u­la­tion was 26,271. An­drew Ray­mond Michael Meleisea — Adeleina’s dad — was born the next year, the youngest of Fanene and Papi’s 10 chil­dren.

Mid­win­ter, and Adeleina has ar­ranged to phone him to talk about the tree. To talk about what it was like grow­ing up in this fam­ily with the very deep roots. At the Her­ald’s Auck­land of­fice, we punch in num­bers on a speaker phone — it’s early here and even ear­lier in Bris­bane, where An­drew works as a care­giver.

“I don’t ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber the tree go­ing in,” he says. “There was a tyre around it, we used to just throw ev­ery­thing in there. All the scraps, all the peel­ings ...

“In those days, on Sun­days we’d go to church and then we’d go to the fish mar­ket and me and my brother used to have to do the lot. First we’d scale it, then we’d fil­let it. You would have thought we were work­ing in the fish mar­ket but that was just a nor­mal Sun­day. And all that stuff went in that tyre. Guts and fish. So it used to smell ev­ery now and then. Peel the pota­toes? Put it in the wheel. Yep, put it in the tyre. Ev­ery­thing was put in the tyre and it was just like that.

“With that tree, I look at the photo of us at Mum’s fu­neral and it looks short to me. But it was just one of those things, all of a sud­den, oh wow, it’s got taller!”

An­drew tries to think of a suit­able anal­ogy: “That tree was like a fam­ily pet.”

Fanene James Joseph Meleisea did, in fact, keep a small menagerie on his quar­ter-acre-and-be­yond par­adise.

“Me and my brother Liam used to make jokes — just be­tween us — be­cause we’d prob­a­bly get a hid­ing, but you know we used to call it ‘Jim’s Back Yard’, be­cause he was a hoarder, he was a handy­man, he could do any­thing with any­thing.”

In the mid­dle of Mt Roskill, Fanene kept goats, rab­bits, pi­geons, lambs, chick­ens, pos­sums, guinea pigs, eels and ax­olotls.

“He made this big steel tank, and he just used to leave the eels in there and they just used to grow ... ah yeah, they fell in our bel­lies. The chick­ens, the pigs, would even­tu­ally go for Christ­mas or Easter.” One lamb es­caped slaugh­ter. “Ac­tu­ally,” says An­drew, “we gave it away. Be­cause he thought he was a dog. He’d just come in with the dogs, sleep on the floor. We sent him up north to my cousin’s place.”

Does he re­mem­ber the lamb’s name?

“He was called Pako. Which means duck. Be­cause my dad was meant to go and get a duck and he came back with a sheep.”

What did An­drew in­herit from his par­ents and Pinches St?

“One day, we were play­ing some cards and I cheated and my dad pro­ceeded to tell me about the pros and cons of cheat­ing, ‘Why would you do that, it shows who you are and what you do.’ I was only 11!”

But: “It kind of stuck.”

From his mum, “Um. Just, I think, my soft­ness. You know, like I said, we were pretty close. She was al­ready sickly, you know, but I didn’t ex­pect her to die.

“We used to catch the bus to­gether. I’d go to school and she’d go to work. I would get on the bus with Mum and she’d al­ways kiss me and I’d think, ‘No!’ But then I stopped do­ing that and I was happy that she kissed me to say good­bye. I didn’t care, be­cause she didn’t mind be­ing seen with me.”

That tree. It nearly makes him cry now, down the phone, early one morn­ing in Bris­bane. “I think that tree is all of us.”

HE­LEN CLARK was the Prime Min­is­ter on Au­gust 30, 2005, when the first ground was bro­ken on the State High­way 20 ex­ten­sion through Mt Roskill. In the Her­ald photo archives, she’s flanked by then-Auck­land Mayor Dick Hub­bard and Labour’s Trans­port Min­is­ter Pete Hodgson.

Six years later, Na­tional’s Steven Joyce is the Trans­port Min­is­ter. He opens the $201m ex­ten­sion to chants of “homes, not roads”. Twenty pro­test­ers at­tempt to dis­rupt speeches; some breach se­cu­rity to reach the new stretch of mo­tor­way, but they stand in an or­derly line and there are no re­ported ar­rests. The pro­test­ers are there be­cause of what hap­pens next. With the ex­ten­sion fin­ished, work can start on Water­view Tun­nel and the po­ten­tial de­mo­li­tion of 365 homes.

Ac­cord­ing to one news re­port of the day, 200 prop­er­ties had al­ready been bull­dozed in the Mt Roskill phase of the project. The Meleisea fam­ily home must have been one of these but nei­ther Hous­ing New Zealand or the New Zealand Trans­port Agency could find any writ­ten doc­u­men­ta­tion of the home’s destruc­tion.

One day, 21 Pinches St is there in the fam­ily photo al­bums. The next, it’s just the tree in an aerial pho­to­graph that forms part of the press kit re­leased for the mo­tor­way open­ing. Even the street has a new name now — Ernie Pinches St — named, ac­cord­ing to a Her­ald Sideswipe column, af­ter a Mt Roskill Bor­ough coun­cil­lor and pro-wrestler who founded the South Pa­cific Wrestling As­so­ci­a­tion in 1954.

In the NZTA press kit pho­to­graph, the mo­tor­way is so new it has no road mark­ings. The resur­faced foot­path is shiny white. The track An­drew and his brother used to race each other down to meet their mum off the bus by Stod­dard Rd is gone. The first one there was al­lowed to carry her pink bag back up the hill. They could see that bag from ages away — it was a sig­nal to make sure the chores were fin­ished.

The funny thing is, says An­drew: “Is that ever since we were so small, from when­ever we can re­mem­ber, there was al­ways go­ing to be a mo­tor­way put through. That was a full 40 years ago. That was al­ways in the back­ground.”

And now there is a just a phoenix palm.

“It could have been put in for Palm Sun­day,” spec­u­lates An­drew. “They were de­vout Catholics. Ei­ther that, or just rem­i­nisc­ing for home.” How deep do those roots go?

Ev­ery four years, the ex­tended Meleisea Leavaise’eta aiga con­venes at the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s Waipapa Marae for the Meleisea Fes­ti­val — a week­end gath­er­ing of more than 300 peo­ple that in­cludes cul­tural work­shops and per­for­mances.

At last count, says An­drew, he had 126 first cousins. Grow­ing up, there was an an­nual fam­ily sum­mer pic­nic at the beach. The old Mt Roskill bus de­pot, where Fanene worked, was not far from the fam­ily home. He’d cor­ral some ex­tra buses and ev­ery­one would con­verge on Pinches St for the trip to Long Bay.

“They still do the pic­nic now,” says An­drew. “The fourth gen­er­a­tion are run­ning it. The great­grand­chil­dren.”

Fanene planted a tree, and that tree shel­tered a gen­er­a­tion.

“My dad and his sib­lings, they re­ally kept it to­gether,” says An­drew. “They had meet­ings ev­ery month or so for 40 years un­til he died.”

Fa’alavelave is some­times de­fined as “shared bur­den”. It’s the prac­tice of rec­i­proc­ity — some­times crit­i­cised for the fi­nan­cial strain it places on fam­i­lies who are asked to con­trib­ute to wed­dings and fu­ner­als and other oc­ca­sions.

In the Samoan Ob­server, an op-ed piece on the prac­tice quotes Samoa’s for­mer Head of State, His High­ness Tui Atua Tupua Ta­masese Efi: “In Samoan the word fa’alavelave lit­er­ally means an in­ter­rup­tion. It speaks of an in­ter­rup­tion to the fam­ily’s usual sched­ule. Fam­i­lies would have to re­or­gan­ise their day or week in or­der to rally fam­ily mem­bers for enough re­sources to meet their fa’alavelave obli­ga­tions. In ear­lier times fa’alavelave made it pos­si­ble for the bur­den of re­sourc­ing large fam­ily events to be shared. The be­lief was that par­tic­i­pat­ing in fa’alavelave were acts of rec­i­proc­ity. In the ideal these acts were man­i­fes­ta­tions and demon­stra­tions of fam­ily love and bond­ing. They per­son­i­fied the best of fam­ily lov­ing.”

Fanene was his fam­ily’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in these mat­ters. The load-bear­ing post.

“He was ... not an au­thor­i­tar­ian, but he had that thing about him,” says An­drew. “If you asked my older sib­lings, he was much harder on them. But he was fair, you know. He had more on his shoul­ders than just us. Be­cause he was the old­est, he was ba­si­cally the chief of that fam­ily.

“You can ask all the cousins. He was prob­a­bly the one that lis­tened to them. You hear it all the time. ‘Aaah, Un­cle Fanene — he was the only one that saved my boyfriend ...’ He was a good diplo­mat.”

Broad shoul­ders, huge hands. Fam­ily le­gend says Fanene lit­er­ally bal­anced ba­bies on his palms.

“He had a lot on his plate,” says An­drew. He thinks his dad mel­lowed over the years.

“I don’t know where he got his em­pa­thy from, but it just came through ... I know where he got it from. He got it from Mum.”

PAPI DIED in 1984, aged just 52. An asthma at­tack. She worked as a cook and a carer. Her chil­dren re­mem­ber a forth­right wo­man; a de­vout Chris­tian, hugely ac­tive in the Catholic church. Adeleina never met her dad’s mum; and has no me­mory of his fa­ther.

“My grand­par­ents came from Samoa and planted this tree that they were prob­a­bly sup­posed to get per­mis­sion for,” says Adeleina. “And now it’s like ... it’s like de­fi­ance. Now you can’t re­move us.”

Meet the Meleisea fam­ily. I’ve asked Adeleina to email her aunts and un­cles. Tell me about that tree, I ask. And they tell me about their fam­ily.

Nina Jenk­ins is the youngest daugh­ter. She’s lived in Aus­tralia since the late 1980s. Pinches St?

“We vis­ited it while it was still a liv­ing, breath­ing home and af­ter the house was de­mol­ished, to pay homage to the sole sur­vivor — Gramps’ tree, in all its glory.

“Our par­ents, tough but per­fect, were good de­cent peo­ple who raised a large fam­ily in a new coun­try with a new lan­guage and very new cul­ture who faced many chal­lenges and suf­fered many losses and re­joiced in many tri­umphs.

“Their most sig­nif­i­cant teach­ing for me per­son­ally and which has been, and con­tin­ues to be my own life mantra, in­clud­ing in the rais­ing of my own chil­dren: ‘Look af­ter each other.’”

Over the next few weeks, a hand­ful of emails trickle in. Some of the mem­o­ries have a sound­track. In 1967, Miriam Makeba was top of the Pinches St pops: “Ev­ery Fri­day and Satur­day night, it’s Pata

Pata time! The dance keeps go­ing all night long, ’til the morn­ing sun be­gins to shine ...”

“Danc­ing, feast­ing, drink­ing and some­times not so happy times,” re­mem­bers Lu­cia Meleisea. “There’d be lots of mu­sic. Pata Pata is now part of our up­bring­ing. My Boy Lol­lipop. Sailor Boy by

My grand­par­ents came from Samoa and planted this tree that they were prob­a­bly sup­posed to get per­mis­sion for. And now it’s like de­fi­ance. Now you can’t re­move us.

Adeleina Meleisea

Pe­tula Clark. For me, it poses the ques­tion, who bought these records, Mum or Dad? It must have been Mum, but I don’t know. Mum was 29 at that time and Dad was 37.

“Our aiga is far from per­fect, but I wouldn’t trade what we have. We lost our par­ents far too early in life, but I be­lieve this has made us stronger to­gether. The tree at Pinches St is not only ev­i­dence of a small seed planted by Dad many years ago, it also sig­ni­fies the spir­i­tual bond in a deep-rooted re­la­tion­ship in our aiga, our cul­ture.”

Anna McNab, 60, is the fifth old­est. She lives in Waiuku, her twin, Tony, is in Dar­win.

“The sig­nif­i­cance the tree has for me is that it is where our fam­ily home used to be and our name, Meleisea.”

For many years, says Anna, her dad and his brother’s fam­i­lies were the only Pa­cific Is­landers in the area. At Christ the King School, she is sure there was at least one Meleisea in ev­ery class­room. “Never got bul­lied, that’s for sure!”

She tells her own chil­dren about all the peo­ple who lived in that weath­er­board house, “about how we used to share rooms and top and tail with our sis­ters and broth­ers when we had rel­a­tives to stay, rel­a­tives com­ing and go­ing from Samoa”.

Anna’s mem­o­ries: prayers ev­ery morn­ing and evening and a clip round the ear if you got the words wrong; the scooter her colour-blind fa­ther painted baby blue to the cha­grin of his kids; the sta­tion wagon that used to be parked un­der the tree that was a good place to hide or avoid chores; a spe­cial week­end when Fanene trekked the kids on an ad­ven­ture through the bush and creek be­yond the house; com­ing home to Papi mak­ing pineap­ple turnovers and dough­nuts as a treat.

“I re­ally loved that, be­cause usu­ally one of them was work­ing. Hav­ing them both home was un­usual ... When I see the tree, it is re­ally about my child­hood and life, back in the day.”

THAT WEATH­ER­BOARD home on con­crete foun­da­tions was solid. Ten kids would be raised here. Neigh­bour­hood foot­ball wars would be won here. The chil­dren would lose their mother, then their fa­ther. Fanene’s sec­ond wife opted not to stay at Pinches St. Hous­ing New Zealand was un­able to pro­vide ten­ancy records — the house at num­ber 21 ap­pears to have slipped through the archival cracks. There was no data for the prop­erty, be­yond

the barest de­tail: a four-bed­room weath­er­board bun­ga­low built in 1959.

Mt Roskill was a late bloomer of a sub­urb — mostly farm­land un­til post-World War I, when hous­ing de­mand grew. In 1947, with 1085 hous­ing units built and an­other 209 un­der con­struc­tion, the State be­came the area’s largest landowner. In the late 1980s, Mt Roskill was dubbed “the Bi­ble belt”, be­cause it had more churches per capita than any­where else in the coun­try.

Mary Nauer, 64, is the old­est of Fanene and Papi’s chil­dren. She was just 5 when the fam­ily moved to Pinches St. Back then, Samoan was her only lan­guage.

“Pinches St is the place where we learnt about our Samoan her­itage, as well as be­ing first gen­er­a­tion Ki­wis; our par­ents were deal­ing with the new lifestyle of liv­ing in a nu­clear fam­ily sit­u­a­tion, so un­like the ex­tended sit­u­a­tion they had come from.

“It may seem strange to many to visit a tree, but just as it is firmly rooted where Dad planted it those many years ago, this mag­nif­i­cent tree is the phys­i­cal re­minder of what I hold pre­cious in life. God, and my beloved fam­ily and ex­tended aiga.”

In 2012, Emma Meleisea — the first daugh­ter of Fanene’s sec­ond son, Joe — made an 11thhour sub­mis­sion to the Auck­land City Coun­cil’s Uni­tary Plan, seek­ing on­go­ing pro­tec­tion for her grand­fa­ther’s tree.

It would, ul­ti­mately, fail be­cause of the lack of an ar­borist’s re­port. But from Aus­tralia, Emma says she would love to pur­sue the cause again. She re­calls she had lit­er­ally one day to lodge the first ap­pli­ca­tion af­ter she heard about the process by chance through a work col­league. Fur­ther sub­mis­sions were al­lowed, and there, on ap­pli­ca­tion 163/1 they are again: The Meleisea fam­ily — and, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, Hone Harawira. I dou­ble-check the name. The sub­mit­ter gives his ad­dress as Par­lia­ment. How did a Maori ac­tivist, for­mer MP and cur­rent Mana Move­ment leader get in­volved with the Meleisea tree?

Harawira can’t re­call ex­actly how the re­quest ar­rived, but he re­mem­bers the story of that tree.

“I thought to my­self, ‘What a won­der­ful way for that fam­ily to re­mem­ber when their grand­par­ents first came here.’ Be­cause, I mean, trees last for­ever. It’s only one tree. It’s not like it’s go­ing to kill the coun­cil to leave it there. I never met the whanau, never met the wo­man who wrote to me, but I thought to my­self, ‘How hard could this be for some­body to do?’

“Wish them all the best from me,” says Harawira. “And I hope the tree lasts for­ever.”

Emma tells me she worked with Harawira’s daugh­ter and thought it was worth putting some po­lit­i­cal weight be­hind the fam­ily’s sub­mis­sions.

“I didn’t grow up in New Zealand, but ev­ery time we visit Auck­land, it’s al­ways some­thing we go to first. Al­ways to the tree at Pinches St. It’s a sym­bol of the con­nect­ed­ness of our fam­ily.”

IT’S MONTHS since I first read Adeleina’s tweet. I’ve heard sto­ries of fam­ily mem­bers who moved to France — the last thing they did be­fore they left New Zealand was visit the tree. One of Fanene’s broth­ers can no longer speak, but when the fam­ily tell him there’s a news­pa­per in­ter­ested in the tree, his eyes fill with tears. We make ar­range­ments to pho­to­graph the tree. The first time, a howl­ing storm blows in. The sec­ond time, it’s school hol­i­days, and Adeleina has the very youngest grand­kids — Wil­liam and Rose — in tow. They pic­nic on the grass in front, clam­ber around the tree’s scratchy base and haul an old chair from the weeds grow­ing down the bank be­hind it. But, back at the of­fice, there’s a glitch and those pho­tos are ac­ci­den­tally deleted.

Third time lucky.

“What I love,” says Adeleina, “Is that peo­ple are forced to see it. You can’t drive down the mo­tor­way and close your eyes. It’s there.”

An­other email has come in: “Talofa lava, afio mai!” writes Vave James Meleisea. His mum is Lu­cia, and he lived at Pinches St from 1974 to 1994. He drives an Auck­land Air­port shut­tle now, trundling daily down the mo­tor­way that ate the fam­ily home.

“I drive past [the tree] ev­ery day I work, and I share its sig­nif­i­cance and the his­tory it has to me, my fam­ily and my com­mu­nity. This tree stands tall, strong-rooted and on its own like an ea­gle that soars high, over­look­ing its turf. Se­cure with it­self. Bold and strong.”

Last week, shortly af­ter the dead­line for this story passed and all go­ing to plan, Adeleina, the for­mer head girl of Ma­nurewa High School, would have been ad­mit­ted to the bar.

“You can prob­a­bly imag­ine that I’ve re­searched things like coloni­sa­tion in the Is­lands, and the treat­ment of Pa­cific Is­landers in New Zealand. It’s a lot qui­eter now than it was. It’s gone from ex­plicit, to im­plicit . . . it’s a lot harder to spot racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion ... Now it’s just in poli­cies, the way Pa­cific com­mu­ni­ties are po­liced, that kind of stuff. That’s why I like the tree. Be­cause yeah. My grandpa did plant that with­out ask­ing and now it’s part of this coun­try. So yeah, like, f*** off. That’s just what it is.”

She said that at our very first meet­ing, where she chose hot choco­late over cof­fee and told me that she goes to the tree when she wants to feel grounded. When she wants to feel con­nected.

“Maybe a few weeks ago, I was just look­ing at it and I re­alised the branches on the bot­tom were old and the ones at the top were new. I’d never thought about it be­fore. And I thought that was so cool, be­cause both make the tree. If you only had the old ones, it could look in­com­plete. But if you only had the new ones, it would look re­ally stupid.

“You need the old, and the new, to make the tree what it is.”

This mag­nif­i­cent tree is the phys­i­cal re­minder of what I hold pre­cious in life.

Mary Nauer

Adeleina Loto Meleisea stands by the phoenix palm her grand­fa­ther, Fanene, planted in Mt Roskill half a century ago.

Below, the grand­chil­dren. Back row from left: Caitlin, Nola, Vave, Pesa, Adeleina and Tr­isha. Mid­dle: Hira and Joseph. Front row: Rory, Ben and Daniel. Papi by the re­cently planted phoenix palm.

Fanene Meleisea. Adeleina aged 10, by the fam­ily’s tree.

Fanene and Papi’s chil­dren. Back row from left: Joseph, Liam, Tony and An­drew. Front row: Lu­cia, Mary, Nina, Anna and John. Ab­sent: Basil.

The Meleisea palm, left, sur­vived the mo­tor­way ex­ten­sion project.

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