"I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen (1961, 12 pages, 30 minutes as a Podcast)
|1912 to 2007|
Tillie Olsen (Nebraska, USA) was from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants She is considered one of the first generation of American feminist authors. She dropped out of school at fifteen and worked as a waitress, a meat trimmer and a domestic. She became involved in politics during the depression era in the USA and was a socialist union organizer. She joined the American Communist party in 1934 and was briefly jailed for "making loud noises" at a union meeting. (There is a good article on Olsen on Wikipedia )Olson tried to write novels but she could never finish one. She is pretty much now know in the literary world for her really beautiful, sad and quite strange short story, "I Stand Here Ironing".
"I Stand Here Ironing" is told in the first person by a woman who has had five children, in the 1930s in the USA in the midst of terrible times. Her first husband, the father of Emily upon whom the story focuses, deserted the family because he no longer wanted to share their poverty. The story covers almost twenty years. In it the mother reflects on how she might have raised Emily differently if she had known then what she has now learned. Emily is a sickly and difficult child. The mother has to work and cannot really give her the foods she needs to thrive so a 1930s charitable organization places her in a home for a while until she can take her out.
The mother remarries and has a second child. The second child Susan is lovely, blond, and bubbly where Emily is dark, far from pretty and morose and withdrawn. In a really beautiful turn of events, some how Emily becomes a well known stage performer with a great comic talent. I do not quite understand how this happens or what she said on stage but I loved this.
It is hard for me to describe the prose of Olsen. These lines toward the end of the story look like they might haunt me for a long time.
She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.The story also does a great job dealing with the sometimes very subtle issues involved with sibling rivalry among girls. This is important to me as I have three daughters. I think I know a bit more about why our oldest daughter does have issues with our younger daughter.
You can read this beautiful story here and listen to Miette's simply wonderful reading of the story at Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast. What I did was to first read it then listen to the podcast. I recommend this if possible.
This is just a beautiful deeply wise story. I hate to say this but when I read "My wisdom came too late" I think I might know what she means and it is not that good a feeling.