The house where I grew up was a big old federation number on the stereotypical quarter acre block synonymous with Sydney’s north shore. The bricks were a deep purply-brown colour and in summer my fingers would tingle with their radiated warmth as I ran my hand along them down the side path. Out the front there were three big arched windows which I always thought were just like the one on Play School and how cool it was, that we had the arched windows from Play School at our house.
My mum was a die-hard gardener back then, her days and our weekends filled with weeding and planting. She would spend hours weeding the garden, hunched over the mulchy soil pulling out onion weed and other plants not meant to be wherever they were. She taught me how to pull out onion weed, ‘a curse,’ she’d mutter, reiterating how important it was to get all the bulbs on the ends and how if you didn’t, ‘you’ll be trying to get rid of them for years’. I still get a little rush of panic if I spy an onion weed in the backyard.
The front yard was a show pony of a garden, resplendent in snap dragons and pansies, petunias and any other bright colourful annual you can imagine. We planted a stand of silver birches, three of them, in the lawn, just near the steps up to the front door. My GOD I loved those trees, the white brilliance of their trunks, the precariously thin line of the branches and those delicate leaves that caught even the slightest of breeze. We planted a silver birch in the back corner of where we live now and it was my favourite corner of the garden, until a possum stripped it of every single leaf. I wept for that poor tree the day I discovered it. Still do.
Under the arched windows were massive hydrangeas, to this day my favourite flower. From recollection they had blue and white flowers and every year they would sing in the grandest chorus of all, their big floppy heads of flowers, those deepest of green leaves. I remember mum used to pick me one or two along with some other pretty flowers, wrap them in some wet tissues and a layer of foil and send me off to school with them for my teacher. I loved taking flowers for my teachers. They would respond with such happiness, pop them into one of the empty jars we’d normally use for water when we were painting and there they’d sit for the week. Proud as punch I’d be.
The back garden was a bit different. There was a grand gum tree in which Dad had constructed a tree house for my brother. Funny how I never thought of it as my tree house. It was a fair way up and only accessible by a rope ladder. Not really my scene. But I remember when it had to come down to make way for the pool and me being distraught at its removal.
There were two ancient orange trees side by side – one navel one valencia just near the clothesline. I love how citrus trees seem so anchored to the earth. Those trees were probably at least 30 or 40 years old and the fruit we got from them plentiful. And there they stood, with little fanfare or fuss.
In the back corner was the garden shed, a wee rectangle of a room with a funny little window. It had this smell of lawnmower and grime and was not my favourite place due to the prevalence of spiders BUT, it was deep up against the back fence and up in the same spot was a massive mulberry tree whose branches spread across and over the four properties which met at the fencepost. We would climb up that tree, sit in the branches and GORGE ourselves on mulberries. GORGE. Woe-betide you stepping onto the shed roof because somehow Dad, no matter where he was in the house or out the front, he’d know the minute you stood on it and roar at you accordingly. So we’d perch in the branches or on the fence and feast until fingers and faces were stained the deepest of hues.
But it was a little garden bed down near the back of the house which stole my heart. Mum had created a garden bed that meandered out from the fence into a big bulbous bed before flowing back towards the fence. I have no recollection of what was in this garden except for a large azalea bush and a camellia. It was in behind and under these two trees that I had my little hidey hole, my secret cave. I would crawl in there, pat down the earth and create a whole new world of fairies and little people and lose myself for hours. I used an old baby blanket as my rug. It was the softest cloth, as only worn and loved flannel can be, and the palest of blues, faded after much washing no doubt and dotted all over with little puppy dogs and piles of alphabet blocks. Various dolls would join me depending on that day’s adventures.
I remember when the seasons changed and it would be too cold and damp for me to hide in my cave and the joy at rediscovering it when the warmer months returned. The year I tried to crawl back into my neglected world and no longer fitted was a jarring realisation of growing up. I backed out, branches scratching my arms as I went, and rested back on my haunches to say a quiet farewell.