Study Guide

Cousin Eunice in Homecoming

By Cynthia Voigt

Cousin Eunice

When the Tillermans finally get to Aunt Cilla's house, they find that the old woman has died and her only daughter, Eunice, now lives in the house. This is bad news for a couple of reasons.

For starters, Eunice doesn't make a very good first impression. When she sees four little children waiting on her doorstep after she comes home from work, her first reaction is to walk right by. After she does that a couple times and the kids don't go, she screams at them:

The round woman came toward them again. This time, as at first, she was on their side of the street and looking at the ground. She held her purse in both hands, protectively close against her side. Dicey thought she must be old.

She stopped about three feet away and looked at them. At first only Dicey was looking back at her, into pale blue eyes that blinked behind plastic-framed glasses sitting high up on her nose. She wasn't that old after all, close up.

"What do you want?" the woman asked. "What are you doing here? What do you want here?" Her voice was high and a little scared. (1.9.46-48)

This is just the beginning of Eunice's silly behavior.

Duty and routine are pretty much the driving forces in Eunice's life. She needs her tea at a certain time, she cleans her house on specific days, and she also seems to be a bit incapable of independent thought. When Dicey and her siblings tell Eunice that they're all on their own, Eunice has to run and call her spiritual advisor. Dicey also suspects that Father Joseph will be able to convince her to send Maybeth away eventually. Eunice doesn't have much brainpower of her own going on.

Old Time Religion

If you asked Eunice, probably one of the first things she'd tell you is that she's a devout Catholic. The lady is super pious and her dream in life is to be a nun. We're not totally sure she'd make a good one, though, since she doesn't seem to genuinely care about other people. She's always bringing conversations back around to herself. For instance:

  • "I have been—not quite the same since Mother went away. People have said that to me. It has been hard for me." (1.9.54)
  • "What a pretty child you are. Really, like an angel. I was a pretty child too. Everyone said so—and we have photographs." (1.9.61)
  • "When I think of you, all alone—abandoned—like myself really, in a way." (1.9.134)
  • "Poor Liza […] She's only five years younger than I am. Do you know that?" (1.12.148)

Welcome to the Eunice show, Shmoopers. She also doesn't seem to have any kind of deep connection to God. Sure, she goes to mass every morning and prays for people, but we get the feelings she's just going through these holy motions. If St. Paul could see her, he might say that she's trying to be "justified by works" (Romans 4:2), which is a big no-no. See, if you just do holy deeds, but you don't have love or faith in your heart, you're pretty much a spiritual bust. Sorry, Eunice.

This little exchange with James actually sums her up quite nicely:

"God wants children to study hard and behave well in school."

James answered slowly. "I guess you could say that. But that's not the way the fathers talk about it, about learning. They don't treat it like a duty. They treat it like a gift. Like grace."

"I don't think you can be right about that," Cousin Eunice said. "Not grace. That's not what the Gospels say, is it? Nobody's ever told me the Gospels say that. I've always understood that duty is the most important, even the best." (1.11.148-150)

In the end, when Eunice agrees to adopt the Tillerman kids, she doesn't do it because she actually cares for them, but because someone else has convinced her it's "God's will" (1.11.164). Eunice will do her Christian duty and take in these poor abandoned children, but that doesn't mean she's going to give them hugs before tucking them in at night.

And Dicey pretty quickly realizes that there's a price for Eunice's Christian generosity:

Cousin Eunice's house wasn't free; it was expensive. The price was always remembering to be grateful. And there was danger to Sammy and Maybeth, of being sent to foster homes or special schools; danger to Dicey and James of forgetting and saying what they thought before wondering if it would sound ungrateful. At Cousin Eunice's house, they were kept busy so they wouldn't be a bother, couldn't get in trouble. (2.1.8)

Eunice will clothe them, feed them, and give them a roof over their heads as long as Dicey cooks and cleans and the other children don't disobey her or bother her with their general childish behaviors. The Tillermans need to always remember to be on their best behavior and stay grateful to Cousin Eunice for all the sacrifices she's made for them. Sure, she doesn't know much about children or even really care much to be in their presence, but at the same time, she's the best these kids have.

The Lady's Okay

Okay, so Eunice is pretty awful, right? Well, even for all her faults, Dicey still has a bit of a soft spot for her. We're told:

She began to feel sorry for Cousin Eunice, who had lived all of her life in this city, who had gone off to work every morning along the same gray city streets. Dicey didn't like the sound of Aunt Cilla. She had lied to Momma in her letters. It seemed to Dicey that Aunt Cilla had tried to keep Cousin Eunice all for herself. And then, Dicey thought to herself as the soft voice droned on about service and prayer, just when Cousin Eunice was about to do what she'd always wanted, the Tillermans turned up to tie her down again. Poor Cousin Eunice. (1.12.37)

Poor Cousin Eunice is right. Dicey doesn't just think this, though, she even sticks up for Eunice when their grandmother criticizes her:

"Cousin Eunice tried to do her best. Sure she's silly, but that's not her fault, is it?"

"Well, whose fault is it then?" their grandmother would answer sharply. "If it's not her own fault for what she's like, I'd like to know whose fault it is."

"Okay," Dicey would say, giving ground because privately she thought her grandmother was right, "but she's not bad."

"Who mentioned bad?" their grandmother would say. "James? Did I? Maybeth, did I say bad? I said silly and I meant silly." (2.11.86-89)

Cousin Eunice might be a bit empty-headed and silly, but Dicey realizes that she didn't get that way on her own—it would be tough living with someone like Aunt Cilla. Dicey also knows that staying with Cousin Eunice is better than being homeless. Her house might not be the best fit for the kids, but Dicey believes that she can make things work there if she has to. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though.

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