As children, we spent regular weekend visits climbing the trees by North Pine River. I didn't know the name of the river then, and it didn't really matter. My brothers and I were more interested in the trees and the pine cones that fell from them. We would throw fallen pine cones at each other as we ran around the sprawling thick roots of the trees by the house. Roots so thick and sprawling that young children could hide between them. Nestle into the dirt between the roots as though nestling between the craggy, spindly fingers of an ageing giant. Which they kind of were.
My childhood memories are full of trees like the ones by our great-uncles' homestead.
The ones on the front perimeter of the Headmaster's house where our uncle lived in Jimboomba. We climbed them and collected fallen pine cones from them as well.
The paperbark tree on the front lawn of our grandparents' house on Northbourne Avenue. An end-point of my infinity-symbol-like cycle circuit as I listened to Madonna's 'True Blue' album on repeat (the other end-point being their Hill's Hoist).
The mulberry tree on our front lawn in Aspley. I regularly raided it for ripe fruit, causing my mother to sternly caution me 'Don't. Touch. Anything!' as I walked into the house, my hands and mouth stained a dark purple.
The beautiful, white-flowered frangipani tree on the footpath near our home in Darwin. Another tree I climbed; another sanctuary. Though briefly a possible threat to our home when Cyclone Gretel swept through town.
The visits to the homestead in Petrie were ones we kids enjoyed, though I never ventured into the house. The closest I remember being able to get to the interior was standing on one of the entry staircases, a few steps behind my parents. The stairs led up the exterior of the house which stood on stilts. I remember Dad talking with Jack and Bob, and the piles and piles of newspapers they hoarded in the house and on the verandah.
To a girl of five or six, the house smelled of old men and stale cigarette smoke. It was intriguing and mysterious, but seemingly out of bounds. I'm still not sure if we were kept out of the house because of my parents' concerns about us seeing the state of the place. Or if it was because of my great-uncles' discomfort with young children visiting. Or because my parents considered it unsafe for us to venture into an old rickety Queenslander overwhelmed by the hoardings of two war veterans.
So we played outside together while the adults talked. Our great-uncles ventured down to the lawn sometimes. Other times they stayed up on the verandah, and my dad and uncle would climb up to catch them up on family news.
I didn't know or understand then why my great-uncles lived the way they did. I knew Bob was deaf and had been 'in the wars'. Not just figuratively speaking. I remember hearing the words 'shell shock', but not understanding what that meant until many years later.
I spent a lot of my childhood loitering around ancestors' homes without going inside; especially when it came to my great-uncles. Visits to another great-uncle's home involved us kids sitting in the back of our rust-coloured Honda Accord while my parents talked with them at the gate at the end of the drive.
My childhood memories are littered with visions of adults squinting at each other in the sun. The lines on their faces etched into their skin by hours of this interaction. My parents, uncle and grandmother standing with other family elders. Each shielding their eyes from the glare of the Queensland sun as they caught up on each other's lives. It was nothing to do with our great-uncles' lack of etiquette or hospitality or their pleasure (or displeasure) in seeing our family. It was just how it was; some with reasons explained to us children many years later, some not.
One day we visited the old homestead in Petrie to find the house was a blackened and charred shell. One of my strongest memories is of the bathtub fallen through to the ground below. A stray cigarette not fully extinguished, a house littered with piles of old newspapers: textbook conditions for a house fire. It was shocking to see, but thankfully Bob and Jack were unharmed by the blaze.
As were the trees we circled around and around as children and which still stand to this day.