The Family Tree


It takes a lot of energy for a plant to produce a flower. Delicate colours, enticing scents; it’s not easy. Flowers need light from sun, nutrients from soil, hydration from water. 


Flowers, like people, need help to be healthy and beautiful.


I always knew my grandmother to have a green thumb. Her garden was beautiful and her plants healthy. She always cared for everything and everyone around her. She was a nurse, after all. 


I, on the other hand, have a black thumb and can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone else. 


I thought my grandmother had been born with this green thumb ability, and that I, in turn, was forever doomed to kill every plant I ever touched.


One day I asked her, ‘Grandma, how do you know so much about plants?’ 


‘I read,’ she told me. 


She’d learned this superpower, I thought. I could learn it too. 



Then I promptly forgot about my desire to keep growing things alive until I was in university. But it wasn’t until I had my own apartment, that she gave me a plant. 


A tree. 


I don’t know what the real name of this type tree is, but I call the one we have The Family Tree. 


For most of my life, as that tree grew in my grandma’s home, I didn’t notice it. I can’t tell you the first time I saw it, though I know it’s older than I am. But I can tell you why it’s special. 


One day, long before the day I got a small piece of the Family Tree, before I was even born, my grandmother came home from work. My grandfather was waiting for her.  He’d heard a story on the radio, and he wanted to tell her about it. The story was about a woman, her husband, and their garden.


The woman on the program had a plant in the front yard that never flowered. She was going to pull it up, but her husband told her not to. ‘Maybe it will flower,’ he said, and she left it. 


The following year she wanted to pull it up because it never flowered. He told her to wait because maybe it would. She left it. 


Round and round the couple went, until one year, the woman’s husband got sick. He was dying. He told her one last time, ‘Don’t pull up that plant. After I die,’ he said. ‘If I’m alright, I’ll make that plant flower.’ 


The woman said ‘okay,’ and let the plant be. 


That winter, her husband died. She was devastated. The following spring and summer, she didn’t garden at all. The year after, determined to get back into the garden, she went outside. Finally, she would pull up this plant that never flowered. 


But it had. After years of nothing, the little plant finally had the help it needed to produce a healthy and beautiful flower. 


And the woman knew her husband, where ever he was, was alright. 


‘If I go before you,’ my grandfather said to my grandmother after he’d recounted this story. ‘If I go before you, I’ll make that tree flower.’ 


My grandmother looked from her husband to the tree he was referring to. Though it could, that tree had never produced a flower. She looked at the tree. She looked at my grandfather. ‘Okay,’ she said. I don’t think she really believed him. 


The years past. The tree grew. But it never flowered. My grandfather retired. I was born. Years past, and never did that tree flower. 


One of my earliest memories is visiting my grandfather in the hospital. I remember my hair was in pigtail braids, I was wearing a pink striped shirt and teal green overalls. OshKosh overalls to be exact. 


I was sitting with him on the hospital bed. He was feeding me part of his lunch. Rice with peas and little bits of carrot. I remember opening my mouth wide and him giving me a big fork full. I don’t think I understood why we were there. But I remember feeling loved. 


He died when I was two years old. 


My grandfather asked my grandmother to marry him after their first date. She laughed it off. On their third date he asked again. She didn’t kiss him for three months, but once she did, that was it. They were together until he died, some 35 years laters. 


Weeks, maybe months after my grandfather had passed, my grandmother when home and upon opening the front door, was hit with a scent she didn’t recognize. It was strong and sweet and it permeated the air. She looked for the source of the smell and found nothing. 


Then she looked at the tree. The tree that never flowered. The tree that grew so tall it almost touched the ceiling. On the top of that tree was a flower. She knew my grandfather was alright. 


She was sixteen years younger than my grandfather. She remarried. The tree started to die. Her new husband moved the pair of them from Brampton to Orangeville. He started to isolate her from her friends and family. She started to get sick. 


Finally, she left him. We never figured out what caused her bizarre illness, but when she left him, that left too. 


The only bit of the tree my grandmother could salvage were a few leaves attached to a small stem. A tree that was once so tall was now fighting to stay alive. She left those leaves in water, in her new condo, and she went to see family in Florida, after leaving her second husband. 


Once the leaves on the stem produced a root, she would be able to repot it. Maybe it would return to its former glory. Maybe one day, when the tree had soil and sun and water and roots, it would flower again. 


She left for three weeks. 


My father picked her up from the airport when she got back. Together they went to her new condo. When she opened the door, a familiar scent reached her nose. 


Plants don’t flower in water. There isn’t enough help. There aren’t enough nutrients. But when she looked at the few leaves on a stem, there was a long root, and a flower. 



‘Dad knows you’re okay now,’ my father said to her. 


She took a picture of that tree in water that shouldn’t have been able to produce a flower. She carried that photo in her wallet. When she told me this story, she showed me the picture. She said since then, every so often, the tree would flower, and she would know that things were all right. 


At that time, the tree was in my bedroom at my grandmother’s home in Brampton. It touched the ceiling. 


That tree has been trimmed, rooted, and repotted many times. A piece of the tree is in my aunt’s house, a piece is in the school my father taught at, and I have a piece. It’s in my apartment in Ottawa. I’m looking at it as I write this.


I think it only ever flowered for her. I don’t think it will flower for me. But I know she’s alright. She’s with my grandfather again. 


I know that, like her plants, like her people, I am healthy and beautiful because of her. Because she helped me. 


And that’s enough. 

HannaH Sunley-Paisley