The Unknown Grandmother


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.*

I was 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 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 are usually unspoken and undistinguished, meaning they are not seen as agreements. They are seen instead as The Truth.

In my extended family we have had an agreement that family history is not told. 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.

Though I have been determined to discover such stories, I have not been successful in getting more than this handful.  Such has been the suppression of detail I concluded a while ago I was up against the most stultifying of human emotions, shame. Shame is the big shaper of agreements.

Here are the snippets I have about my maternal grandmother.


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 began a relationship with her first cousin, Percival, despite her father forbidding 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-plus 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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18 thoughts on “The Unknown Grandmother

  1. Great story–I’m glad you were able to find out the story. Most profound insight of the year: your statement that families agree on what is possible and not possible. I never thought of that but it is probably the fundamental determinant of how millions of people approach life. Unfortunately.


    • Wunderbar! Now let me deliver the coup de grace. Yes, I have had a few Australian Open drinks but I could not be more pleased with your comment, Tom

      It doesn’t stop with our family. There’s the agreements about what’s poss and not poss we imbibe from our schooling, our gender, our socio-economic group, our country, our blah de blah, and most of all, ta da … from ourselves, ie, what we say to ourselves about what’s poss and not poss!

      Add it all up and what do you get? What we call REALITY. That, my friend, is what we call reality.

      As you say, most unfortunate determinant. However, if we start to distinguish agreements as agreements … totally different. Then, we can have some power and freedom about how to live!

      Love, love xxx


      • Thanks! Yes the key is to recognize that agreements are just agreements with outdated, artificial, erroneous and possibly ignorant reasons for being around. But the idea of agreements raises lots of interesting implications. E.g., we can think of people who are limiting themselves because of agreements–are their people who go through life binding themselves to others’ agreements about them, themselves and the world? Or worse, think that a world view must be constructed based on other peoples’ agreements rather than what life tells them?


      • I hear you’ve gotten it and also what you’ve gotten .. “we can think of people who are limiting themselves because of agreeements.” That’s what I was communicating. Sometimes when I’m speaking to someone face to face they will get something; first time ever someone has gotten something through reading my words. Thank you for being such an awesome listener.

        It’s not just some people limited by agreements. It’s all of us. You, me, everyone. There is no escape from them. What there is is distinguishing them.


  2. Poor Eunice. It seems like such a small transgression and such a large (and long) punishment. The photo is wonderful and I have to tell you that I have been a fan of Clarissa Pinkola Estes since I picked up an audiotape of “In the House of the Riddle Mother” in 1993. Her voice is the voice of a storyteller: entertaining and instructive. I can remember listening to this tape with great enjoyment on more than one trip by ferry returning from the mainland,


    • That’s what I thought too. I cried writing this, for the pain she must have felt being without her family for most of her life and for her courage. I was also thinking about the sister back in London. She was abandoned by both her mother and her sister. I wonder if she had to bring up herself and the other three children.

      It’s very interesting too how Eunice repeated the action of her mother. She took herself away. Wherever shame is operating, the same action will get repeated generation after generation. Until it’s completed on.

      CPE is wonderful. I’ll look for the book you mention. I find her very stimulating. And she’s matter-of-fact and exhilarated in just the right places respectively.


  3. A powerful story, Norelle. So much is acceptale today which wasn’t in your grandmother’s day. For instance, I discovered quite by accident that my great-grandmother was pregnant (OMG) when she married! While adding a name to our family bible, I saw that she had changed the date of my grandmother’s birth by wetting her finger and rubbing the original out. Family is so important, and to suffer the loss of an entire one through their own choice is a miserable legacy. Bravo for searching for the little you have found.


  4. b e a u t i f u l …(as usual)

    My grandma Pearl was a way ahead of her time. She taped all of her stories and poetry on an old tape recorder, which my cousin put together on a CD.

    It was a PRICELESS gift.

    Xxx Love to you.


  5. I enjoyed reading about your grandmother, Narelle and have been pondering the idea of ‘agreement’ for a while. Yes, I know that there are certain things in families that are not talked about, but the intensity of this agreement can change over time. An example is the convict ancestors that my husband has on his side. They were only spoken about in hushed terms for a few generations as the family tried to distance themselves from this unsavoury past. When the resurgence of interest in family history occurred with the bicentenary, it was suddenly ‘fashionable’ to have a convict (or a few) in your ancestry. Luckily, although the agreement about not acknowledging convict roots had existed in the family, basic details of the who and the when continued to be passed down through the family. This allowed keen family historians to research the Australian archives, and let the rest of us know the real story, although many of the intimate details have been lost. So I guess the degree of the “silence” in the unacknowledged agreement is the determining factor as to whether details are lost. Was it an agreement that ‘we only talk about this quietly amongst us’, or an agreement that ‘it shall never be spoken about’. Thanks for the ‘food for thought’.


    • haha, yes, Graham is “lucky” to have convict ancestors now. The more extreme the offence causing deportation the better. Caught for stealing a crust of bread is preferable to caught for stealing a whole loaf! Also makes you think, doesn’t it, how we continue to be confronted, as a nation, with the issue of the deportation and incarceration of innocent human beings … It keeps coming up so the cruelties of the past can be completed, and we continue to avoid the issue.

      I’m so glad the family stories have been passed down to you and your relatives. What a treasure. Totally agree that agreements and their intensity change. They’re all made up anyway, and each of us can decline to give our assent to the agreement at any time. There were obviously one or two people in his family who had a different agreement.

      It’s not that agreements per se are a problem; it’s that we don’t get clear we have this or that agreement. I might work with a group of people who have an agreement that “work is hard and boring, and the boss is ripping us off”. Until I get clear I have this agreement, work is going to be hard and boring and I’m going to think the boss is ripping me off. When I get clear to it, everything changes.


  6. I too did not know any of my grandparents- but much of that is due to distance, death and certainly things that were kept in the quiet in days gone by. Morals have changed whether for the better or the worse is for others to decide. Our grandfather John Broadwood Kilvert was the youngest brother of your great grandfather James Robert Kilvert. My grandfather ended up marrying 3 times and it was only in later years we found out about his third family as he had ‘lived in sin’ with his third partner until after the death of our grandmother then he was free to marry, but his family did not know then until after his death! I have the Kilvert Family tree back to William and Jain in 1792


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