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  Brad's Teacher Writing: "A Mother's Memory and Our Own"

November 6, 2006

The essay that follows is based on Tillie Olsen's story, "I Stand Here Ironing."


A Mother’s Memory and Our Own

The world of the story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” is vividly written by author, Tillie Olsen. Through magnificent language, believable characters, and a credible plot, Olsen creates a memorable story.

Olsen’s use of language is beautiful. Her description of first born, Emily, “in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur,” gives us not only a charming picture of a baby, but also, through her “ecstasy,” her lust for life. Then to say when the mother returns from “hashing” that “[Emily] would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted,” to show all that liveliness turn into pain is even more heartbreaking. A master of language, Olsen holds us in her spell.

Through that language Olsen creates characters, fully imagined. A child that says, “Aren't you ever going to finish the ironing, Mother?” and then “tells [her] everything and nothing.” What more perfect way to paint a picture of a young woman of nineteen, of the relationship between a mother and child, than the mundane moments at the ironing board? There is, too, a mother’s pain at exposing her daughter to “the lacerations of group life,” and a mother’s keen perception of her child, knowing Emily is “as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity.” Few writers can build such complex, believable characters so quickly.

What happens to them, mother and child, buffeted by society, is finely rendered by Olsen. Though the supports are there—“ a convalescent home in the country”; “the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children”—the effects are disturbing and tragic. Emily has a face that is “closed and somber,” suffers her sister’s theft of secrets quietly, only later telling her mother, “that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan,” until, in triumph, her “deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience,” brings us back to her blurred hands on the floor and her original “ecstasy.” That we can succeed, like Emily, despite the hurts inflicted by our society, is ably conveyed to us by Olsen’s complex and courageous plot.

Olsen’s story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” belongs in our memory. Patiently and sympathetically, Olsen explores one woman’s memories and regrets and her daughter’s pains and triumphs, creating a vivid combination of reminiscence and domesticity. —379 words, including title.






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