Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

I doubt that the name Tillie Olsen is unfamiliar to most readers. Her story “I Stand Here Ironing” (which is included in the collection Tell Me a Riddle that I am actually discussing here) is one of the most widely anthologized stories around. For anyone who reads, Tillie Olsen just seems to feel like an old friend. That’s one reason I jumped at the chance to take a look at her collection Tell Me a Riddle.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Scott Turow.)

And, though this is a small collection, I was just as impressed by the other stories inside as I was (and was again) by “I Stand Here Ironing.” I kept pausing to sit and roll what I’d just read in my head, happening to flip to the bio and picture at the back as I did so. That’s when I happened to notice that Tillie Olsen was from Nebraska.

I did some looking, for some reason never having heard where Olsen was from. She was born in Wahoo (which I’ve been to numerous times), but she grew up in Omaha (where I lived for the better part of thirty years). She went to Omaha High School before having to drop out at 15 and work. That last part didn’t interest me as much, until I realized that Omaha High School was the original name of Central High School, where I attended.

It was just such a weird thing to suddenly realize, to think that she once even sat in the same classrooms I did, that I had this connection to someone I’d always felt a connection to…just because of her writing. The connection I feel to Olsen’s stories is still much more important, but it was all kind of a weird synchronicity kind of moment.

For me, the reason I find Olsen’s stories so magical is actually part of that odd experience. Her writing just seems to tap into something inside people, recognized like it’s always been known but never realized. We may not have lived the lives of Olsen’s characters…but we have felt their stories.

Just re-look at the opening section from “I Stand Here Ironing”:

            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 who I’m deeply interested in helping.”

            “Who needs help.” … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

            And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

There is such a tender bluntness to these words, a resignation yet an outcry to and against all that we cannot change in our lives. In short, Olsen zaps us right into the inseparable pleasure/pain that is our lives as human beings.

Now, don’t think that just because I only quote from “I Stand Here Ironing” that it is the only good story in the collection, or that it is the only one I wanted to talk about. I didn’t just jump for that one because everyone has read it already. Instead, there are only four stories here. I wanted to show what I needed to show and still leave the rest for you to find, if you haven’t already. You all deserve that. After all, there is just only so much Olsen out there for us to read. So many other things laid claim to her life.

Though, I have to stop before wishing it could have been otherwise for Olsen. The stories in Tell Me a Riddle are such that I hesitate to even wish something that could damage them. Olsen’s life was still part of her writing. If things had been better for her and she could have written more, who knows if we would have gotten something like “O Yes” or “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” She might have turned out many more masterpieces…or we might have gotten none of what we treasure so much.

Olsen’s talent was amazing. I may wish she had written more, but what she gave us is more than we can reasonably ask of anyone. Just pick up Tell Me a Riddle and I’m sure you’ll agree with me…presuming you haven’t read it already.

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