My Family Tree Grows Through the Roof of Nana’s Garage

The most memorable part of my Nana Eileen’s place was a huge oak tree appearing through the roof of the garage, which had been built around the juvenile oak. It was a place where people accommodated nature instead of bending it to fit their plans.

The acorn that grew into the majestic oak was a gift to Eileen from her best friend Annie, always known as Nancy. I’m not sure of the origin of the acorn, it may even have been one of ‘Hordern’s oaks’ (in 1923 to celebrate 100 years of Anthony Horden and Sons department store, 50 000 acorns were imported from England to Sydney and given away). I imagine their friendship growing like that young oak tree, as they had families of their own and picnics together under the leafy oak canopy, with cicadas screeching in the background.

Grandma Nancy and Nana Eileen as Girls. Image credit: Catherine Harper

The oak grew alongside Eileen’s young family – a clever blonde daughter and then four cheeky, curly-haired and good natured sons. It was a place to climb, to laze in the strong branches, to fall out of and break bones. The mature oak sheltered the chicken run, and chickens that were regularly ‘hyponotised’ by the small boys. The oak was watered by small streams and dams from the garden tap, as miniature cities were constructed and washed away.

The roof of the garage, built around the sturdy trunk, provided a platform for exploring the oak tree. Winter bare branches, spring buds, and unfurling pale green leaves became hardy dark green swathes – ideal for hiding from homework assignments and questions about broken windows caused by wayward cricket balls. Year after year, the fall of acorns and leaves provided hours of gentle activity, as Eileen and her family raked fallen oak leaves into bundles.

Eileen and Nancy gave their blessing when Eileen’s son Gregory asked to marry Nancy’s daughter Evelyn. Evelyn and Greg are my parents, Eileen and Nancy are my grandmothers, the benevolent matriarchs, and this oak was our living family tree.

Even at the very end of her long life, Eileen still needed to sweep up leaves. The oak tree and its rhythms had become part of who she was.”

The oak tree and the garage. Image credit: Amelia Martyn Yenson
Nana Eileen and the oak tree. Image credit: Catherine Harper

When I think about my extended family, it is almost always against a backdrop of trees. Especially the family oak. The yard was also home to a sprawling Sydney red gum in a suburb where trees are no longer allowed to sprawl, it’s branches protecting a sumptuous crop of native raspberries. An unexpected delight in a busy Sydney suburb.

I wonder whether my children will have the same whole-body connection to a favourite tree… their heart growing around and through the limbs as their lives change.”

I wonder which majestic trees will vanish from our lives by the forces of a changing climate, either with a brutal upheaval during a storm or a slow, sorrowful passing over years of drought and flooding rain. I’m no longer shocked when iconic local trees are banished or poisoned to make way for development or better views. But my heart is heavy and the landscape is forever changed.

Will we look up and wonder where the birds have gone? Why the air is no longer lemon-gum-scented as we round that corner on our afternoon walk? Where can we shelter from the biting rays of the summer sun? And what to make of a sunrise framed by rooftops, rather than punctuated by leafy towers?

My children give me hope. Their school gardening club is oversubscribed. The favoured parts of their playground are a nature garden and trees with branches low enough to grab and dangle from before plopping to the ground on lanky legs. The school’s student leaders take time to identify trees and plan to extend the nature garden, to the delight of the younger students. Plants provide so much ‘sense of place’, not just a backdrop to our increasingly urban lives.

Most kids I know still love to run in the rain and splash in muddy puddles. To crouch small and examine ants, caterpillars and skinks. To wade through long grass. I just hope they will also be able to look up and out and think, one day, about planting their own family tree.


Dedicated to Eileen and Norman and their children: Marie, Peter, Kevin, Greg and Bernie.

Amelia Martyn Yenson is a plant scientist, who has worked at the Australian PlantBank.  She is fascinated by seeds and spends her time with her three most precious and time-consuming germination experiments (her children) or working as a science content editor for the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust.

The featured image of acorns is by böhringer friedrich, sourced from Wikipedia Commons.