It's very fitting that on the last day of January, a grey snowy day better spent inside tucked under a blanket with a book, my short story reading was about Depression-era America and Australia. In both stories young women, girls at the outset, are raised in households were circumstance, attitude or situation mean unhappy childhoods due in great part to their being females. Melancholy stories for a melancholy day.
I read Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" in Infinite Riches yesterday afternoon followed up by my weekly New Yorker story. First the Olsen. Tillie Olsen is a Nebraska author who was born in Wahoo in 1912. She lived in Omaha for a time but eventually moved to San Francisco. She knows well of her story topic as she had to work most of her life in order to support her family. A nod to public libraries as that is where she educated herself. She was also a political activist and a feminist.
"I Stand Here Ironing" is a story from the collection, Yonnondio: From the Thirties (a Virago Modern Classic by the way, to help you set the tone--I have the book in a different edition).
"I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."
"'I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I'm sure you can help me understand her. She's a youngster who needs help and whom I'm deeply interested in helping'."
So begins the story. A mother reflecting on her daughter's life, nineteen years, a difficult life. "There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me." Because you see, this mother has had to work outside the home at various times. She hasn't been there always for her daughter, her eldest child. Of all her children, Emily was a beautiful baby, though the child was never convinced she was anything but plain. She nursed her but had to leave her with neighbors when she went out to work or to look for work. She had no choice since her husband left her and the family.
Even as a child, it showed in her face--her sadness and disappointment. The pain left its mark in her own somberness. Unlike other children her age, she never protested or threw fits.
"I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?"
Circumstances shape the child but shape the mother as well. What is a single mother, especially during the Depression, to do? She does only the best she can. And if that means sending her away to recuperate from illness, then it must be done. To a place her family never visits and she's not allowed to keep even a single letter from home. Or to send her away to family in times of difficulty she must go, or stay alone when all she wants is for her mother to refuse to go into work just one day.
The world has not changed so very much in some ways. Children and parents must still make the best of it. They will forever view themselves and measure themselves against the perceived beauty of others and find themselves wanting (even if they shouldn't). As Emily's mother thinks about her daughter as she irons, trying to form her response to the counselor who is worried about this young woman, now nineteen, she knows everything in her daughter will "not bloom--but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by."
This is an elegant story yet a sad one. I wouldn't be surprised if it was heavily used in anthologies and in classrooms, too. In it, there is much food for thought.
Next week: Elizabeth Taylor (a favorite of mine).
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Elizabeth Harrower's "Alice" appears in the February 2 issue of the New Yorker. Harrower is an Australian writer who was active in the 1950s and 60s but then abruptly stopped publishing. Her work went out of print until Text Publishing began reissuing her work (new to me publisher which I am eager to explore). Alice grows up in Depression-era Australia, but her circumstances differ in that her younger brothers are the beloved of the family.
"Alice knew only that something was not fair. Here she was, a good girl, a nice girl, pretty to look at, obedient, kind, clever at school, and with beautiful hair--yet none of it was good enough. While the boys were somehow perfect. And not because they didn't try but because they never had to. They were welcome when they arrived."
The story follows Alice's life from childhood to adulthood through two marriages and motherhood and her own quest for happiness and contentment. I think I'd like to look for more of Harrower's work. You can read a Q&A with the author here. The story appears online here. Have you read this or any other good stories this week?