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Memories of Tillie Olsen

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On New Years Day writer and political activist Tillie Olsen died at the age of 94. Although she published only two works of fiction and one nonfiction book–about not writing—those few were so powerful they made of Tillie a beloved feminist icon who spoke on panels, won awards, and was taught in women’s studies and literature courses. January 14th would have been her 95th birthday, and so, yesterday, many paid tribute to Olsen, on radio broadcasts and at private and public readings.

I met Tillie on September 9th, 1999 (9/9/99), in my capacity as coordinator for the Bay Area Local of the National Writers Union. One of the perks of the job was interviewing member writers for our newsletter, so when I learned that Tillie was in our union, I went nuts. I still remember the bemused reaction I got from Brad Cleveland, our Chairperson and therefore my supervisor, when I spotted Tillie’s name on the membership list. My hand flew to my heart, which had sped up considerably. “Tillie Olsen,” I breathed, with purest rapture. Like so many women of my generation, I knew by heart the immortal first line of Tillie’s short story I Stand Here Ironing: I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

The ironer is addressing her daughter’s teacher; the story is more or less a soliloquy in which the mother relates bits and pieces of her daughter’s 19 years. It’s full of regret for things that couldn’t be helped—she’s a working class woman raising four kids—but rather than being defeated by mother guilt, she seems to have resigned herself to The Way Things Are. There’s no sentimentality in the story, and no self-pity: Just the facts, ma’am—that and an enormous dollop of heart.

Can we really say it? I wondered, awestruck, the first time I read this story. Can we talk about motherhood with the same degree of complexity and contradiction we put into discussions of philosophy or politics? Nowhere in I Stand Here Ironing does Olsen say, “But it was all worth it.” In fact, compared to current child-rearing trends, with most parents determined their kids find happiness on an unprecedented scale, Olsen’s closing paragraph is almost shocking:

Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

Adoring fans sent Tillie all kinds of irons over the years—miniatures, antiques—and she proudly showed them to me the day of our interview. She had just moved into a house in Berkeley, behind the home of one of her four daughters, and was still unpacking boxes. She led me up and down stairs on a tour of the house, pointing out her books, her papers, her chachkas. Whatever grabbed her attention she brought to mine; this interview was like none I’d ever conducted. If I didn’t have friends whose minds operate the same way as Tillie’s, I might have been thrown—but I was accustomed to her madcap style of communication. We spent over three hours roaming her house and the outdoors, while she launched into one anecdote after another.

When I heard that she’d died, I rummaged through my paper files and computer disks for the story I wrote about her in HearSay, the union newsletter. Predictably, I found every newsletter whose production I’d overseen except for the one with Tillie’s profile in it. I took her books off the shelf: Tell Me A Riddle, the short story collection that changed my literary sensibility; Yonnondio From the Thirties, an unfinished novel she cobbled together from scraps written over the years; and Silences, an exploration of the many reasons that writers don’t always write. Yonnondio, the story of immigrants who work in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, is the most relentlessly depressing piece of literature I ‘ve ever had the pleasure to read—my friends and I refer to it as one of those pieces in the “awful / wonderful” genre of art. I’d forgotten that she’d inscribed my copy:

To Marcy—of the amazing patient listening—and the touch-the-right-button questions that produce looooong responses—this long ago book you read long ago—with affection, respect, and hopes we will be together more than this once—not because you have a piece to write—but for the conversation—Stay well, Tillie (Olsen, that is). 9/9/99. (“Olsen, that is”—as if!)

Reading this now, I am filled with regret—for that day turned out to be the only time I ever did spend with Tillie. Her words were a clear invitation to visit her again, and I recall thinking that I would…. and then, somehow, life ran away with me, and I never went back. Now my heart breaks, thinking of what might have been: I could have shared a friendship with this extraordinary woman. Another one of those roads not taken, more out of fear than anything else: I just didn’t have the chutzpah to show up at Tillie Olsen’s house for a spontaneous cup of tea—even though she felt I asked the right questions and listened to her patiently.

Thank you, Tillie, for those words, and for all the other words you managed to commit to paper in between cooking and ironing, distributing flyers and getting arrested for your principles.

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The family asks that donations in Olsen’s memory be made to:

Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature
c/o the San Francisco Foundation
225 Bush Street #500
San Francisco California 94104

A memorial celebration is planned for Saturday, February 17th at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, 2501 Harrison Street (corner of 25th and Harrison) at 1:00 p.m. There is parking on site. The church is 8 blocks from the 19th Street BART Station.

For more information about her life and work, go to http://www.tillieolsen.net

To read a tribute by Ericka Lutz, Tillie Olsen’s granddaughter, go to: http://www.literarymama.com/columns/reddiaperdharma/

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2 responses »

  1. This was a beautiful and moving post. I wonder if you were at the memorial yesterday. A powerful, bittersweet event.

  2. Susan–thank you so much for your comment.

    Yes, I was at the memorial. It made me think, among other things, of the Beatles’ line, “And in the end/the love you make/is equal to the love you take.” It was obvious from the huge crowd of friends and family that Tillie made a lot of love in her lifetime. She also made a lot of trouble, and raised a lot of hell, and, as you said on your blog, people told many anecdotes about her. She never went into a restaurant without talking to the wait staff, asking them about their working conditions. She never passed a homeless person without talking to him or her. When a homeless person said “Bless you” to her, she replied, “Don’t bless me, curse the system.” Hearing all these stories about her was inspiring, and for the past few days I’ve been asking myself, in various situations, “What would Tillie do?” I’ve written elsewhere (see “Staying Alive“) that frequently when someone dies we take on some of their qualities, to continue their work in the world. I sure hope I can take on some part of the spirit that was Tillie Olsen.

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