Remembering Tillie Olsen

When Tillie Olsen died New Year’s Day at the age of 94, the world lost not just a singular writer, but a woman who tried to combine motherhood and writing long before “mom-lit” became a publisher’s marketing label. Her writing is spare and strong, her work as a feminist an example for us all.

I’d been getting reacquainted with Tillie Olsen via her granddaughter, Ericka Lutz’s, wonderful column at Literary Mama; her latest is a moving portrait of saying goodbye to a sometimes difficult, always beloved grandmother. There’s also a wonderful tribute to Olsen by Marjorie Osterhout on the Literary Mama blog.

I first read Tillie Olsen’s work in high school; I remember particularly a fruitless debate about whether the mother in “I Stand Here Ironing” is a “good” mother. I wonder now about the teacher engaging sixteen year-olds in such a dialogue; it’s an easy way into the story, but where does it get you, really? Who’s to say what a “good mother” is? We were way too young and green to fully understand the story’s complicated truths. Still, I’m glad that teacher introduced me to her story, because of course her writing stayed with me. Thanks to him, Olsen became a name I looked for in college, in graduate school; she became a writer I read, and reread, and taught myself. And if I did no better teaching her complex story than my high school teacher, at least, I think, I’ve planted her name in my students’ heads, and they can return again when they’re older.

Tillie Olsen’s family has asked that on her birthday, this Sunday, January 14th, we commemorate her life and her work with gatherings and readings of her writing. You can find more information about how to honor this extraordinary woman at the Tillie Olsen Memorial website.

One Comment

  1. Ericka Lutz says:

    Thank you, Caroline. I just came home from our small family ceremony burying Tillie’s ashes (public memorial to follow next month) — in a beautiful cemetary right next to my Grandpa and down the way from my other Grandma. Wonderful to come home, check my bloglines, and read your tribute/story. And thank you for mentioning the tributes to Tillie tomorrow. Over 47 readings, large and tiny, scheduled across the country!
    Ericka (Tillie’s granddaughter)