The night I met Tillie Olsen

I’ve written about this before, but I wanted to put it here too, because it is one of my most cherished memories.

The Backstory

In 1993 I was preparing to return to the classroom after being on child care leave. One of the things I needed to do was take  a couple classes to refresh my certification. One of those classes was a called Women in Literature. In that class we were required to read “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen. I’d read the essay before, and seen a T.V play based on it, but that was all before I had children of my own. This time the 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. My biggest fear was  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, Glen, a friend of mine asked me if I’d like to come to an after party at his house honoring Tillie Olsen who was going to be at American University where he was part of the English department. “The I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen?” was my response, mouth agape. Yes, he assured me, that was who he was talking about. “Of course I want to go,” I replied, “she’s sort of a hero to me!”

The Meeting

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 many 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 in hers, and said, “How lovely! You must write that in a story and send it to me when you do.” I promised her I would do just that.

Later as she sat next to me in a rocking chair  while we ate a late snack we chit-chatted some more about the food, the apartment, and the hosts.

I could have asked her to sign the two books I brought or even had my photo taken with her, 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.

The Epilogue

In the years that followed I often thought about that night and my promise to Tillie Olsen to write the story of how I Stand Here Ironing and Of Women Born shaped the way I raised my children. I never did write the story and it is too late to send it to her because she died in 2007. I probably won’t write that story — or maybe I have written it already, here and elsewhere. Maybe it is written in the lives of my children who have both grown up to be outstanding adults.

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