Study Guide

Abigail Tillerman in Homecoming

By Cynthia Voigt

Abigail Tillerman

Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy find out halfway through their story that they have a grandmother they've never heard of. Weird, right? Apparently this lady lives in Crisfield, but she's nuttier than a jar of cashews. Still, Dicey is itching to go out and see her—she just has to check this lady out for herself. Is their grandmother certifiable? Or is something else going on here? Let's find out.

Meet Abigail

When Dicey first meets her grandmother, Abigail doesn't make the best first impression. She pretends not to recognize Dicey and accuses her of trespassing. She also starts to give off some pretty strong indications that she might be mentally ill:

"You know what I sometimes think?" Her grandmother looked straight at her, her mouth chewing. "I sometimes think people might be good to eat. Cows and chickens eat corn and grass and turn it into good meat. People eat cows and chickens. In people, it might turn into something even better. Do you ever think that?"

Dicey shook her head.

"Especially babies," her grandmother said. She swallowed thoughtfully. "Or children. Do you have brothers and sisters?"
(2.7.164-166)

Holy cow. But it turns out Abigail knows exactly what she's doing. As James says, she's "crazy like a fox" (2.8.256)—in other words, she's more wily than anything. Abigail doesn't want the kids to stay with her, so she tells Dicey to get lost, she's rude to them in general, and she tries to avoid acknowledging that she's their grandmother:

"Are you the grandmother?" Sammy asked.

Their grandmother nodded.

"What am I s'posed to call you?" Sammy asked.

Dicey hadn't even thought of this. Neither, apparently, had their grandmother. She didn't answer Sammy. She pretended she hadn't heard him. (2.8.71-74)

Harsh, Gram. Way harsh.

Underneath It All

But for all her bad qualities, it's clear that Abigail is trying to reach out to her grandkids. After all, she doesn't have to invite the kids to stay the night at her house, nor does she have to let them hang out just because they decide to do some chores. Dicey is totally right when she observes that Abigail "doesn't want [them] to stay, but she doesn't want [them] to go, either" (2.9.17). Their relationship status could definitely be labeled it's complicated.

As Dicey gets to know her grandmother better, she realizes that they both have the same strong personality. Abigail reigned herself in for years and never argued with her domineering husband, even when she thought he was wrong. But now that he's gone, she's free to do what she likes. Abigail is fierce and independent, just like Dicey, helping Dicey finally understand what Momma was talking about when she said that determination was "in [Dicey's] blood" (2.11.50)—it's all thanks to Abigail.

She Can't Fail

Dicey finally figures out why their grandmother won't let them stay when she has one last heart-to-heart with her. Turns out that Abigail doesn't have the money to raise four kids, and she also doesn't want to lose her freedom. More than anything, though, she's pretty terrified of letting them down. She tells Dicey:

"I failed them [my children]. I let them go. I told them to go. There were times I could have killed him. He'd sit chewing and the anger and shame were sitting at the table with us. Chew and swallow, so sure he was right. But I'd promised him—and he didn't know why they each left. I did. So, I'm responsible. I won't have that responsibility again. Not to fail again." (2.11.46)

It seems that Abigail wasn't mother of the year, so all her kids ended up running off and never coming back. That broke her heart and now she's just not sure if she can let anyone back in. Think about it: Abigail is so hurt that she tries to cut off connections from everyone. She doesn't have a phone or a car so she can't easily get in touch with people, and she also has everyone in Crisfield believing that she's lost her marbles. She goes to great length to keep people away.  

But she can't keep her grandkids at arm's length for long. Unlike Cousin Eunice, Abigail feels no duty to raise her grandchildren—but she also clearly cares for them. In the end, the kids are finally able to get her to open up. They tear down her defenses and she lets them in and agrees to give them a home. Yay. We just love a happy ending.

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