Monday, January 15, 2007

Tille Olsen

While doing a search on something completely unrelated I came upon a blog entry that alerted me to her death which led me to A Tribute to Tillie Olsen

In 1993 when I was preparing to return to the classroom after being on child care leave I took a class on women in literature. In that class we were required to read "I Stand Here Ironing" by a Tillie Olsen. That story spoke to me in a way I found both jarring and comforting.

As a relatively new mother, I often felt as if I were short-changing my children in some ways. I felt that my daughter was missing out on my attention because we had a second child so early after she was born. I knew, deep down that she'd survive it, but felt guilty nonetheless. Ms Olsen's story comforted me in letting me know that children are strong and can survive worse things than new siblings. She speaks of a feeling of failure with the first, but that the second benefits from what the first lost out on. I resolved to let my daughter know how important she was, how beautiful she was, how talented she was and how much I treasured her.

She has turned out to to be an exceptional person, a far better person than I am - smarter, more talented. She wants to write when she grows up (among other things).

In 1999 or so a friend of mine asked me if I'd like to come to a reception at his house honoring Tillie Olsen. "The I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen?" was my response, mouth agape. Yes, he assured me, that was who he was talking about.

I went to the reading at American University, where she read from one of her stories, but didn't join the long line of people waiting to get their books signed. I made my way over to Glen's apartment and waited with the rest of the invited guests for Ms Olsen to arrive.

It was very late when Ms Olsen and her publicist arrived. Ms Olsen hadn't wanted to disappoint anyone in line, and chatted with each person for as long as they wanted to talk.

We all stood when Ms Olsen arrived. She greeted each of us in turn and talked about this and that. When she got to me I blurted out what I'd rehearsed over and over in my mind:

"Ms Olsen, I just wanted to tell you that as a new mother, I've read all the books on raising children, but what has inspired me most is your story, I Stand Here Ironing and Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born. Ms Olsen, looked at me solemnly, held both of my hands with hers and said, "You must write that in a story."

Later we chit-chatted some more while we ate a late snack.

I could have asked her to sign a book or two I had bought or even had my photo snapped with the two of us, but just being there, sitting, talking having met this woman, I felt as if I needed nothing else - no proof for the outside world to know I'd met her.

I missed her birthday tribute by one day, but then I usually miss people's birthdays. I'll read some of her works today instead.

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