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Matrilineal Narratives: Learning from Voices and Objects.

The matrilineal line is a precious connection although it is sometimes disrupted and marked by absence. In this paper we explore notions of generational connections and loss among women in our families. Three women scholars from a regional university, we are interested in the agency of objects, as discussed by Eva Domanska in 2005, and their role in feminist research. In particular we consider the entanglements between matrilineal voice and objects that produce possibilities for care and nurturing across generations. Through our conversations, we discovered that our grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' stories shared threads of similarity. We tell these stories through the collective biography of poems and prose leveraged from significant objects that highlight the "generational nurturing," researched by Nye. We disclose our attempts to reconstruct and reconnect with the women of our matrilineal lines across decades. We embed new layers in our retelling of old stories to our daughters and nieces.


It is not difficult to start a conversation about the objects of matrilineal nurture and care across generations of women. Invariably we find that most people have "a something" or even "a non-thing." It may be a photograph, an object, or a story. Or it might be a heart-felt absence that traces the connections and disconnections of the matrilineal line. Storied objects are often from the home: domestic tools, trinkets or "tat." They are not necessarily of any great monetary value; rather they are objects laden with personal imagery and the "fragrances" of the past. Historian Ludmilla Jordanova writes of what she calls the "perfumes" that inspire historians. Persistent and complex, these perfumes evoke emotional responses: "They infuse everything historians do" (Jordanova 34). Taking up this notion of the perfumes of history, we imagine the fragrances of matrilineal care and nurture to be found in the objects, stories and photographs we keep.

In searching through our own lives, our chattels and memories, we came to realise that the re-storying process can be transformative and energising. Accordingly, understandings of our own roles as keepers, speakers and creators of women's history become part of the story. The perfume of history reaches easily into the present and indicates a future. Our three stories are not necessarily idealised nor even happy. They are hard to tell, marked by loss, absence and wondering. Yet they are told in the spirit of matrilineal care and are newly marked by our authoring selves.


Researchers have long asked how we can touch or know the past through material objects and stories. Leora Auslander argues that objects can enrich thinking, given the "impoverished" qualities of the literary text (Auslander 4). The tangible nature of the object is cause for celebration. Don Ihde, for example, has suggested that objects "give voice where there has been silence and sight to that which was invisible" (qtd in Domanska 4). We imagine our objects, photographs and stories as being fragmented, temporal and located. In doing so, we preface our writing on matrilineal connections in three spheres: women's objects, women's time and women's places.

Keepers of objects

At a time when we face an online saturation of images and discourse, we return to a slow pace of tangible objects to touch the past in an attempt to hold the hands of our matrilineal ancestors. We embrace the narratives of care that they have embedded in the objects through their custodial process. As keepers ourselves, we appreciate the original intent of the storied objects and re-story them in turn. These attachments are multilayered and organic in that they are imbued with meaning by multiple generations. So too, we imagine our grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' lives and their relationship with the material world.

Australian feminist objects have been used to theorise women's lifeworlds. Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson curated and storied a collection of objects that they hoped would "embody, represent, memorialise and evoke women's liberation" (1). Acknowledging the existence of an extensive textual archive, they also argued that there are opportunities to reconsider possibilities for representation through objects. They suggest that, "[w]hile objects are capable of carrying historical narratives and processes, their meanings are neither fixed nor stable" (3). The assemblage of curated objects is a temporal process that is marked by the assembler and their lived experience. Like Bartlett and Henderson, we suggest that these objects and stories, as "myth and poetry," frame feminist pasts that connect us. They provide a window into "practical and aesthetic issues, condense and spark memories, evoke time and place and thus historical and personal narratives coalesce around them" (1). Our relationships co-construct subjectivities and we explore the stories of our objects to reimagine and reinvigorate our matrilineal relationships, stories and heritage. Through this process we reconnect with our grandmothers. These stories reflect loss, poverty and colonisation.

Women's time

The objects and stories that we share traverse many decades, yet the meanings are far from diluted. Rather, time and distance are a warm and secure embrace when stories are marked by loss, grief, oppression or absence. We think of matrilineal women's time as an imagined space that connects us across time through stories and objects. Women's time can be seen as marked by rhythms, "extra subjective time, cosmic time, occasional vertiginous visions and unnameable jouissance" (Kristeva 16). In examining our own objects, we touch on an ecstatic notion of connection, one that has the capacity to heal and reconcile.

Material objects and place

The contexts of our stories acknowledge the complexity of women's representations and voices, reframing them through memories of place, both urban and rural. Delores Hayden reminds us that when we think about places of significance, we should do so through all five senses, recognising the political and contestable nature of place (Hayden 18). Gillian Rose advocates that we rethink and reimagine women in the light of contexts that were fraught with stereotypes, an absence of voice and an impossibility of resistance (Rose). The women of our stories inhabited places of poverty, hardship and displacement. They are from the slums of Surry Hills in the 1900s, a 1930s relief camp in New Zealand, the segregated Aboriginal communities of the "old mission" in Brewarrina and "the old common" of Tibooburra of the same period.

Considering objects that belonged to these women, we wondered if we could identify the women's voices, agency and resistance. Indeed, could we create a connection between our lives and theirs? While it could be argued that this link is beyond reconstruction and connection, we envisage possibilities for generational nurturing that can be afforded through the objects that are received and passed on to daughters and nieces.

Poetry as process

We draw from the principles of collective biography (Davies and Gannon), story telling as praxis (Carteret) and postmodern emergence (Somerville). Our deliberate, multi-layered approach provides us with the opportunity and permission to experiment with a blend of history, feminist connections and personal emotions. We draw from fragmented memories to construct our collective biography of stories told to us.
    Collective biography is not invested in a naive, naturalistic
   truth but instead in a truth that is worked on through
   technologies of telling, listening, and writing. In a sense, it is
   the very unreliability of memory that enables this close
   discursive work. (Gonick, Walsh and Brown 742) 

In writing these stories together, we met repeatedly to discuss the narratives that intersect with each other and with historical times. Stories emerged from our matrilineal lines that evoked feminist narratives of survival, care and nurture. To further contextualise our objects and stories we articulate the stories as poems. We deployed the specific strategies of collective biography (Davies and Gannon) writing, listening, questioning and affirming. As was the case for Davies and Gannon, one person's memory would elicit additional memories from others. As the stories formed, we found a remarkable resonance between them in their matrilineal significance. We felt their capacity to embrace and evoke a sense of nurture across generations. The following three stories focus on objects that include photographs and images.

Adele: re-storying and restoring

In writing my doctoral thesis, I spent a great deal of time thinking about matrilineal historicism and generational nurture. These concepts were mapped through stories that were connected with history theory and pedagogy. The research data consisted of academic debate but began with women's life stories, objects and photographs. Each was embedded with historical and generational narratives of care and survival.

We story and re-story treasured objects and photographs for future generations. As keepers of these objects, we add our own layer of stories. Inherent in storied objects is an identity project (Bell, Grandmothers). The agency of objects can be seen in the way that items and images from the past exert a lifeforce. "In looking at photographs of a female forebear there is a collapsing of images. The objects have a timelessness; their transmission transcends lifespan; they have a force and logic of their own" (Bell, Grandmothers 261). To demonstrate object agency I share the story of my grandmother and a photograph of her mother.

The walls of my office are covered in historical images, personal photographs, and statements of philosophy and theory. They inspire deep thought and stimulate ideas for writing. But one photograph is problematic: Christina's photograph sits just off-set from my computer screen. She leans elegantly on a carved chair and I wonder what she would think of my musings on our connections, given that they are frail and in many ways broken. She was my maternal grandmother's mother, who was compelled to give up her daughters to foster care and played only an intermittent and distant role in my grandmother's life.


Her husband left England, and a wealthy and privileged life, to come to Australia. She lived in the Presbyterian community of Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales. Their lives changed dramatically when they came to the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. Life in Surry Hills during this period was marked by poverty and hardship. In turn, in 1905, three of their five children were fostered out within the church community. So why then do I keep her photograph close? I suspect the answer lies in notions of grief: hers over the loss or absence of her daughters and the hardship that must have plagued her life, and my grandmother's grief for an absent mother.

Is my positioning of Christina's photograph reflective of a desire to return her to our family's story? I yearn to return her to her place in the matri lineal generations, ending a century of absence. The links remain precarious and imagined, without historical basis or facts. Yet I am plagued by a desire to bridge the distance between mother and daughter in the future telling of the family history.
    Running past the inconspicuous wire gate.
   Into the sanctum of Grandma's abundant garden.
   Leaping tall concrete steps and into her cool house.
   Embraced by familiar gentle laughter and care,
   Three sisters are eager, delighted and brimming with elation.
   We are nourished by a love that knows no passing.
   Three decades gone and she is as close and as present as ever.
   As children however, we never knew her personal loss or
   Writing my thesis in an old cottage on the university grounds
   I have listened to women speak at conferences and scoured
     the libraries.
   Seeking the story of women, their lives and their learning.
   Yet only now I turned to my/her own story and wondered. 

I place Christina's photograph on my wall because of the absences--the grief and the regret. It is my desire to reunite mother and daughter in the only way possible nearly a century after they were parted; in the stories I tell my children.


The three little girls in long frocks and petticoats immersed in the blurred "flow blue" ink of an old porcelain plaque look forlornly toward a spark of light. My mother, Jeannette, had few possessions. This delicate plate connects my sisters and myself to our mother as a little girl and events a time long ago.

1935: Workers toiled beside the Kopuawhara riverbank to build the remote New Zealand coastal railway line. It was the Great Depression and this was a relief camp--a government project to stimulate the economy by funding jobs through development projects. In a sparse cabin, a small boy, living with his mother, Jean and sister, Eileen, woke to hear a puppy in the next room. It was the arrival of his sister, Jeannette. When the politician came to "press the flesh" and kiss this latest relief camp baby, they found in the provisions cupboard only a packet of salt. Separated from his family, down by the riverside, George, Jean's husband, lived in the single man's quarters. When the flash flood torrent swept through the valley, it washed George away with 20 others who lost their lives. Jean moved to Gisborne--an hour's drive today, but on the 1930s road half a day through potholes and ruts.

Little Jeannette was fostered by Mrs Laskey, a woman whose husband was a Verger, minding the imposing Anglican church that towered above their modest adjacent cottage. Jeannette was adored, and at afternoon tea she was brought out to entertain the church ladies. Jean visited her small daughter at Mrs Laskey's, purchasing the best clothes she could afford for her. Jeannette, in later life, spoke of standing at the window and crying as her mother, brown scarf tucking back her hair, wheeled her bike down the path leaving her behind.
    The verger's wife scooped the small girl up
   and took her into the tiny wooden house behind the church
   "Come on luvvie ..." she crooned
   The child's small brown eyes squeezed beads of tears
   and her plump little legs kicked out at the bespectacled lady
     as she
   wriggled in the firm warm arms.
   "What can you see here then honey?"
   She pointed to the oval porcelain plaque on the wall.
   Blurry violets and blues shimmered through a curtain of tears
   "See the little girls luvvie?"
   Blinking, the girl could see the wavy tresses and petticoats
   of the three sweet cherubin faces of the three girls
   who clutched each other forlornly in the twilight.
   See sweetie, they are finding Tinkerbell. 

1980s: Mounted above the tongue and groove of the Victorian hallway, I grew to eyelevel with the plate. It was treated with reverence as the most beautiful and precious object our mother owned. What did it symbolise? Was it the disconnectedness of Jeannette's childhood? Was it an image of her own three daughters? Was it a symbol of resilience or an ongoing search for an evasive spirit that could make everything all right? Was it just a symbol of Mrs Laskey's great love for her?


2016: The plaque remained on the wall above Jeannette's bed until the day she died. Gone now, I piece the fragments of our conversations together, like a cracked vase with bits missing. I puzzle how I can reach through years to construct an assemblage of my fragmented understandings of Jean's and Jeannette's life events for Phoebe and Charlotte, my own teenaged daughters. Those bright-eyed girls who only seem to look forward to the immediacy of friends and cell phones. They smirk at the oldness of the blue plaque--of the babes lost in the wood--"Finding Tinkerbell."

"Mum we hate antiques--why do we have to have all these ancient things in the house?"

Snatching moments of time with them, at the breakfast table or over a cup of tea, I re-story what I can tell them of Jeannette and Jean. Striving to stitch together lives of older and younger women, I tell them the story of the blue plate. They will make their own bricolages of meaning, but it is time to broker relationships with the three blue children.



These two black and white photocopies are the only photographs my grandmother Amy had of her mum, Ruby, my great-grandmother. They are treasured items that form part of my grandmother Amy's family albums. When we used to look through the collection and enquired about photographs of Ruby, Amy would always explain how:
    The only photos I had of mum
   Were left behind
   At 76 Havelock Street
   In Newcastle
   That was in the nineteen-seventies
   Most likely
   The nuns packed them up
   Gave them and all our belongings
   To the other families from Bourke
   After we left and came back home 


These photographs frame Ruby's life as she lived it in two different cultures, in different places, at I different times of her life during the first half of the twentieth century. Figure 3 is an edited photograph that captures a young carefree Ruby in the early 1930s. This image was deliberately separated from the original photograph of Ruby's family including her mother Rosie, grandmother Charlotte and great-grandmother Mahoga. Also pictured are Ruby's step-father, step-grandfather, sisters and brother and her four oldest children, Roy, Leonard, Ronald and Edith. Figure 4 is a photograph which was taken by the anthropologist Norman B. Tindale at Brewarrina Aboriginal Station in 1938. It is a portrait that projects Ruby's pain and suffering of being removed from Country and locked up on "the Old Mission." This photograph forms part of the Tindale collection of Aboriginal family genealogies and cultural material housed at the South Australian Museum. Ruby recalled the harrowing and heart-breaking experience of being trucked-off to Brewarrina, in a 1960s oral history recording that was later compiled as part of the Wangkumara Oral History project by the National Parks and Wildlife Services in Tibooburra.
    When they brought ole people away
     They left all
        All the stock that they had
   An' Ngakka had tah bring
     Some across for his father
        Old grandfather
   An' all old women and kids
     An' young ones
        Was all in the one truck
             An' the men folk
                 Was in the other truck
   We camped at Wanaaring Bridge
     Packed up from there
        An' come here (Bourke) for dinner
             They just got sandwiches
                 An' that for us
   An' went on to Brewarrina
     An' that's where we stayed
        Until we lost our old people
                                (Ruby Johnson, c1960s) 

This is a collective story told from one matrilineal perspective, from my grandmother Amy about her mum Ruby and our greatgrandmothers, Rosie, Charlotte and Mahoga. The images used in this article are imbued with a multitude of family, community and government perspectives and politics. Permissions needed to be sought from all stakeholders as there are social and cultural protocols relating to ethical research in Aboriginal communities. These protocols pertain to objects, images, voices and collective stories. I have to be culturally sensitive in the way I speak, analyse and critique images as my extended family have vested interests. This can be an ongoing challenge to satisfy community gate-keepers and acknowledge elders as key stakeholders. I am guided by my grandmother Amy's voice in deciding which stories to tell, which photos to use, and in which contexts.

Women's objects, women's time and women's places

Representing the past through stories, objects and photographs has highlighted how important the memories of, and connections with, the women of our families are to us. They contribute to the negotiation of our multiple and unstable sense of self, place and identity. They also shape the way we re-story the past to current generations. The re-telling becomes an additional layer signifying new interpretations of belonging and caregiving.

Each of the stories focused on women experiencing personal hardship, loss and disruption. In writing, we have sought to connect and better understand the experiences of these women for whom we feel a great sense of nostalgia and familial connection. But we are also conscious of a sense of absence, sorrow and yearning in the context of their historical circumstance. Blending historical narratives with nostalgia and family history can be theoretically problematic. The threads of nostalgia in the stories might be thought of as sources of contestable history that are limited in their academic rigour. We argue however that this nostalgia is generative. It creates the opportunity for meaning making and translation of historical evidence (Radstone). In this paper we fuse historical thinking with the nostalgic subject self and the historical narratives of place and objects. We are at ease with this bricolage because we can make a contribution to conversations around sociocultural history.

Absence can be traced through objects (Meyer). They forge connections with women's lives across generations and simultaneously expose pain and loss as an absence. In all three women's stories there is a sense of disconnection and disempowerment imposed through their historical contexts. In revisiting the objects, we give them voice; a voice that is fragmented, temporal and located.


Storying matrilineal objects is not a typical method for engaging with historical discourse. The stories traverse disciplinary boundaries of history, reflective practice, collective biography and ethnographic work. The trio of stories presented in this paper are highly personal but contribute to a broader notion of lived experience and generational nurture.

Histories are always under contest. Authenticity is perspectival and nostalgia is both personal and powerful. Objects can afford a temporal engagement and connection with women of the past. Relationships between people, objects and place can be generative and renegotiated. When our lives are marked by loss and absence, an engagement with matrilineal objects can breathe new life into generational nurture and family histories. We envisage that through drawing lives and narratives out from objects, new cartographies for research can be possible.

Works Cited

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Bartlett, Alison, and Margaret Henderson. Things That Liberate. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

Bell, Diane. Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters. Fitzroy; Victoria: Gribble, 1987.

Carteret, Phoenix de. "Storytelling as Research Praxis, and Conversations That Enabled It to Emerge." International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 21.3 (2008): 235-49.

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Author:Nye, Adele; Barker, Lorina; Charteris, Jennifer
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2015
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