‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen

The first and last lines of this story are always like a punch to the gut. In fact, I think the first line here is the greatest first line of a short story I have ever read, or in the top five at least: “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” A mother recounts the life of her now (almost) adult eldest daughter and in the telling, Olsen paints the picture of an era, of single motherhood and all the attendant guilt, poverty and, of sibling dynamics. It’s incredibly moving, and a masterclass in how to write monologues.

First published in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell, 1961/Virago 1980

‘I Stand Here Ironing’ by Tillie Olsen

As if maternity gives itself to monologue, and then, Tillie Olsen’s 23-page monologue is coloured by the very impossibility of finding the time to gather thoughts:
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.
And yet it’s the domestic scene, and this story itself, that provides the occasion for that gathering together and totalling. Elaborated over the ironing board, this is an exquisite piece of writing balancing regret, retrospect, guilt and defensiveness as the mother deliberates how she brought up her first child, her monologue rhythmed to the methodical back and forth of the iron… It’s tender and jarring and unresolved:
Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know that she is more than this dress on the ironing-board, helpless before the iron.
First published in Tell Me a Riddle, Dell, 1961/Virago 1980