Underneath it all is the same hunger for numinous experience that humans have had since the beginning of time. But sometimes this hunger is exacerbated, for many people have lost their ancestors. They often do not know the names of those beyond their grandparents. They have lost, in particular, the family stories.*
We were talking the other day of the network of social agreements in which human beings live, and those in which women dwell. Some of the most potent of agreements originate in the family. I think of agreements as being:
- agreements for what gets talked about and how it gets talked about, or
- agreements for what is possible and not possible.
Agreements, by default, are unspoken and undistinguished, meaning they are not seen as agreements. They are seen instead as what is the case; in other words, The Truth.
In my extended family we have had an agreement that family history is not told. For example, I know virtually nothing about my grandparents. Both sets of grandparents had died before I was born, and even now I have no more than a handful of snippets about who they were.
You want to see the extent of this suppression. I am doggedly determined to discover such stories, and yet for decades I have not been successful in getting more than this handful. As a teenager, I was like a wild bird trapped inside a room, dashing myself against unseen walls of glass in my thirst for context and history.
Such has been the suppression of detail I concluded some time ago I was up against the most devastating of human experiences: shame. Shame is the big shaper of agreements.
Looked at one way, my maternal grandmother’s sketchy life story contains something that with contemporary eyes we may see as a source of shame, but I doubt it was what we think it was.
Her name was Eunice and she came from a family of piano-makers. She lived in London, around Kensington, and was the eldest of five children.
She had olive skin and long dark glossy hair that would remain free of grey until her death. She worked as a governess, and sometime in her late teens, her mother, an alcoholic by some reports, left the family and was never seen nor heard of again. Around that time, she fell in love with her first cousin, Percival. Her father forbade her to do so.
Soon after, she left England with Percival and travelled by ship to Australia, where a short time later they were married, in Queensland, I think. She sent wedding invitations to her family and never heard another word. She was 20 years old. She lived in various places in Australia, including, I discovered a few years ago, a house a few kilometres from where I live today. It was where they were living when Percival left for World War One.
She went on to have 10 children, 7 girls and 3 boys. My mother is the youngest.
My Auntie E – one of three remaining siblings – tells me no-one ever called her Mum or Mummy. It was always “Mother”, though Percival was always “Daddy”. When I ask her why the difference, she says she doesn’t know.
Maybe it was because she had been a governess … it just didn’t occur to us to call her Mummy.
She also tells me that my grandmother didn’t have any friends outside the family. “I suppose she had all of us children … and then maybe there was always shame for her.”
“Because she had married her first cousin?”
Eunice died of bowel cancer, I think it was, in her 70s. Some years after her death, one of her cousins came from England to find her. It was too late. Another cousin once tried to track her down in Queensland but she had long since moved to another state.
In the 50+ years she lived in Australia, Eunice never heard from, nor spoke to her family again.
Years later, my Auntie J visited London and went to the family address. Eunice’s sister opened the door, took one look at her niece and made a cruel remark about her resemblance to her long lost sister.
* Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves
Image: Shlomi Nissim
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