‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen

“I stand here ironing and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.”

Olsen gives us everything in the first line: the never-ending work of poverty and motherhood, the single, unpartnered I, the impossibility of explaining, the impossibility of giving what is needed, the never-ending continued attempt to give it anyway. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a mother’s agonized internal monologue in response to a well-meaning social worker’s questions about her oldest daughter. How to gather the threads of history, circumstance and harm that distorted her daughter’s life? How to explain what she could have been, might still be? It’s the way the daughter shines darkly from within this lament that breaks my heart wide open. Both social worker and mother have seen “her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses laughter outof the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.”

First published in Pacific Spectator, in February 1956. Collected in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell Publishing, 1956

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