I have lived in eight houses since 1998, roughly a new destination every three years. The first time my Mum allowed me to help her choose our new home, I wore my neatest outfit to the inspection. It was a well-timed fresh start because it was the same year I was set to begin university. It only took us 10 minutes to appraise each of the five bedrooms, lounge room and backyard. I was immediately drawn to the waist-high orange and lemon fruit trees that had been planted by the previous family. Their trunks were spindly and barely standing upright on the lawn, making the glossy citrus bulbs appear fuller. If those saplings could grow to full size, I was convinced we could thrive in this home too.
Orange trees seem to be a deeply embedded hallmark of suburbia. They burst out of front yards in the first suburb in Sydney that we moved to when I was seven. Marayong was a sleepy enclave in the larger Blacktown district, characterised by an eclectic set of neighbours and a main street that has not changed in 15 years. For my Mum, my brother Aiden and I, our three-bedroom house was the epitome of simple living. We walked to school every day, often picking flowers for my Mum on the way home to surprise her after a long shift. Our closest neighbour jumped straight in our car to help us retrieve our cat when it was stolen one night.
To this day, whenever we are feeling nostalgic, the three of us will drive to Marayong and point out our friends’ old houses, the bakery where we bought donuts before school and the set of stairs that seemed so much taller when we ascended them to go to primary school. When we eventually moved into a home that satisfied the ultimate suburban dream; that of a bigger yard and more spare rooms, I was already used to the routine and entirely nonplussed by the change.
Marayong was a far cry from the home my Mum had made in Queensland after she moved to Australia with my Nanna at the age of 12.
Marayong was a far cry from the home my Mum had made in Queensland after she moved to Australia with my Nanna at the age of 12. It was a challenging time. She and her three cousins were the only Maoris in a school of 800 White Australians. She muses that her cousins felt so strongly about their heritage, they found it uncomfortable standing for the Australian anthem and other students noticed.
“Did you receive flack for that?” Aiden asked.
“I don’t believe so. Eventually I just got used to the anthem,” Mum said.
Everywhere she went, Mum found ways to make Australia her home. I’ve often wondered what inspired her to move so many times and over such large distances. She neglected to tell me much about her childhood growing up and so I worried that I grew up without any clues as to a life beyond suburban streets. But the stories that my Mum wants to tell are embedded in the homes she has built up with her bare hands. She likes to perfect the physical contours of her space by madly tiling floors, painting walls and buying furniture that invites you to sit for a while, to chat with her over a cuppa. When she deems the work finished, it is time to move on and repeat the process.
Every so often, she would conspiratorially lean over the dining table and whisper “You know that I’ve seen taps at the hospital turn on and off as Nanna has walked past. She’s even had family members visit her from beyond the grave.”
Each time we heard this; it was a welcome reminder that our family believed wholeheartedly in the afterlife. There was a longstanding family tradition to tell these kinds of stories in our home. Inevitably it would set off a chain reaction of similar experiences.
Aiden would be the next to speak up and say, “I saw someone hiding in Nanna’s closet and I thought it was a little kid but I realised there was no one there.”
“Ghosts aren’t unfriendly, they usually just want to send you a message from home,” Nanna would say, rolling her eyes.
I’ve since moved out of my family home but whenever I go back, we inevitably gather around the dining table. It has played host to our ugliest moments together.
I’ve since moved out of my family home but whenever I go back, we inevitably gather around the dining table. It has played host to our ugliest moments together. One night, a shouting match about whether our ancestors were ‘civilised’ unearthed a chasm of mistrust between the two generations of women sitting before me. That same night, my mother and I settled into timeworn dining chairs. I leaned in eagerly to hear about the latest ghost to pester my grandmother, the fight long forgotten.
Mum and Nanna have polar opposite personalities but in 2013, we made the decision to all move in together, bringing the family count to five, including my younger brother Rane. New family traditions were born. They jokingly talked smack about both Australian and New Zealand sports teams when they watched games but supported both. After three years and the addition of my younger brother Cody, we all moved into the house with the blooming lemon and orange fruit trees. It was there that I finally learned the insights that my Nanna had to share about our heritage.
“At the top of North New Zealand are my mother’s lands. They were put in her children’s names and nobody else’s. Once all of us have died off, it goes to the next generation. If I die, it will go to you,” she said.
“But only once all the children have passed, is that right?” Mum said.
“That’s right,” she said.
“Could it be a place where the family gets together?” Mum asked.
“There’s a marae made just for us,” she said.
I may not have minded moving around a lot as a child, but I find myself more drawn to the idea of settling in one place in the future. The extended link to land and space that my family has drawn from living in New Zealand for generations is a part of my heritage that I never expected.
My Mum is currently in the process of moving again, although still in Sydney. Behind her, there is a long trajectory in my family of mothers building love through sheer force of will. While I grew up in Australia, my great grandmother had the foresight to ensure that one day, I can return to another home.
This story has been published in partnership with The Writing Zone, a mentoring program for young writers from Western Sydney, hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.