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
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.
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.
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.