Writer and activist Tillie Lerner Olsen died on January 1, 2007. She was the author of Tell Me a Riddle, Silences, and the Feminist Press daybook, Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother. Many fine tributes have been written, detailing Olsen's life and achievements. Instead of expounding on these, I would like to recount a memory of her. I am priviledged to live in Santa Cruz, California, where Olsen's daughter lives, and was honored to actually meet Tillie Olsen in 1984. Her writing greatly influenced the direction of my own work as a poet and memoirist.
I became pregnant with my first child at a very young age, 22, and I feel that the tremendous, life-changing journey of pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a precious son enhanced my vision of the world and opened up a deeper vein of poetry for me. I became aware of both my child's vulnerability and the fragility of the earth itself, and felt that there were meanings beyond the everyday surface of things.
There was a great deal happening in my life that I did not have the spiritual or emotional vocabulary to name. My mother was trapped in an abusive relationship, paralyzed by her fear of abandonment; her life had been a series of losses and eddies around the same whirlpool for many years. I did not know how my life would be different from hers; I only knew that poetry, as it has been for decades now, was the cord binding my sanity to this life. That which encroached on my mental, spiritual, and physical lives cannot be named in this public forum, but they were beginning to bud and would one day reach a state of terrible flowering. And in my heart of hearts, I knew what was to come, though I pushed these thoughts away each day.
I used to type on the kitchen floor past midnight, not wanting to wake the father of my baby, hoping the sound would be more muffled than if the typewriter sat on a table. I did not always know what to write about; I had been told in the course of my bachelor's degree that topics such as menstruation, childbirth, and other "women's concerns" were not fit subjects for poetry. Yet this is what I worked towards those long nights as the baby grew in my womb and my heart yearned for the day I would hold him in my arms.
During those nights, with darkness pressing against the windows all around me, I wrote – poems, journal entries, even a few short stories I have recently unearthed from a pile of old papers, even though I was told in college that poets like me shouldn't try to write prose. I began to go to readings, and may have even held my first poetry reading at that time. I felt I had, in Santa Cruz, found a place where my writing could flourish.
In the winter of 1984, pregnant with my eldest daughter, I sat in Cabrillo College's auditorium, listening to a group of writers — among them Ellen Bass, Maude Meehan, and Tillie Olsen — read from Tillie Olsen's newly published reader from The Feminist Press, entitled Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother. Arranged like a daybook, it contains poems, stories, epigraphs, fragments not unlike a patchwork quilt. This small volume of wisdom spoke very deeply to my heart as a young woman trying to find my place in the world.
I cried openly at that reading, thinking of my own mother locked in the prison of her life, fearing that she was being harmed at that very moment, feeling the grief of losing other significant women in my life. I had a battered copy of Tillie Olsen's Tell Me A Riddle at home, one of the few books I had ever read that spoke to both the pain and magnificence of being a mother.
I had no money to buy the daybook at that time, though I did purchase it later. I took my program up to the writers at the end and politely waited in line for Tillie Olsen. Everyone else had the daybook for her to sign; I had only the program for the reading in my hand, and told her I had a well-worn copy of Tell Me a Riddle at home, but I had forgotten it. Tillie took my face in her hands and gave me a smooch on the cheek, signed my program, and put a note on it: "paste this in your well-worn copy of Tell Me a Riddle." Her moment of attention meant everything to me.
If someone had told me I would climb the emotional and spiritual equivalent of Mount Everest to reach the place where I am today as a writer and a mother, I probably would have balked like a blind horse. Yet Tillie's writing was part of the rope that kept me tethered to sanity and strength. My copy of Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother is stained, drawn on by children, the edges brown and dogeared, the cover wrinkled and torn. It has, for many years, been a heart's guidebook; like a guidebook taken on a lifelong journey, it shows its age and use.
So this is a word of love and farewell to Tillie Olsen, a farewell full of gratitude for a life generously and abundantly lived. I'd like to finish by quoting the very last bit of a story she published in her daybook about the passing of her own mother, entitled Dream-Vision:
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She who had no worldly goods to leave, yet left to me an inexhaustible legacy. Inherent in it, this heritage of summoning resources to make — out of song, food, warmth, expressions of human love — courage, hope, resistance, belief; this vision of universality, before the lessenings, harms, divisions of the world are visited upon it.
She sheltered and carried that belief, that wisdom — as she sheltered and carried us, and others — throughout a lifetime lived in a world whose season was, as still it is, a time of winter.