I first encountered Tillie Olsen’s writings in a college literary anthology. This is a great format for writers because they are introduced to young thinkers as they go through their college studies. Writers never know which young impressionable minds might be digesting their works. Consequently, Tillie Olsen’s story, I Stand Here Ironing presented a writing technique that I have not forgotten.
She creatively shows a mother ironing clothes and reflecting on her concerns about her first-born daughter. She is concerned about her daughter’s welfare as she takes responsibility for her daughter’s disconnect.
I found this format unique because Tillie Olsen took something that we all do everyday and simply recorded it. We all clean and do daily chores while our minds rehash events and portions of our lives. The title itself is a great attention-getter.
The story takes place during the Great Depression. The timing alone sets the tone for feelings of despair as many people were feeling during that time. Good writers know certain eras are characters in themselves. The mother irons as she tells the story of her daughter Emily who is now 19 years of age. She was a beautiful, bouncy dark-haired child and the mother raised her by the books.
But to the family’s dismay, the father felt that he could no longer cope and he abandoned the family. The mother is forced to take on extra work to make ends meet and Emily is left with babysitters and sometimes with the father’s family. It is every mother’s greatest guilt.
The mother admits that Emily looks like the father and she privately wonders if she has shown her ample affection. Emily becomes ill and frail and is not gaining weight and she is sent to a sanatorium. Her mother writes her regularly but Emily is not allowed to keep her mother’s letters. They can only be read once and then they are taken to be destroyed which adds to the child’s insecurity.
When Emily does return home, the mother fears that she is forever scarred. The mother remarries and more babies are born. In fact, there are four more children and when the stepfather goes away to war, Emily becomes a second mother to her siblings.
Unfortunately, Emily and her younger sister, Susan, have this ongoing conflict and only a mother’s love can fully understand this rivalry. Susan is a curly- haired blond who is bubbly and very much-loved. She is a stark contrast to Emily when she was a small child.
Yet, towards the end of the story, Emily comes into her own and the mother is pleasantly surprised to see how animated her daughter becomes while acting in a school play. She receives thunderous applause and she wins the approval and adulation of her peers. As the mother continually irons, she laments,” Help her to know that she is more than this dress.”
I replicated this technique in a short story that I wrote called How? It can be found in a collection called Traveling Streams. I would like to thank and honor Ms.Tillie Olsen during Women’s History Month! Her creative writing technique has inspired many and this short story has been made into a short film!
Lynn March 27, 2015