Remember Tillie Osen


Tillie’s Hands, August 2006, Photo by Jesse Olsen

Tomorrow, Saturday, February 17, 2007, Tillie Olsen’s life and contributions to American politics and letters will be honored at a Memorial in Oakland. It will be the first memorial that our young son will attend, and in attending at just over four weeks old, he beats out his older sister, who attended a memorial service when she was seven weeks old. The vast difference here, though, is that this will be the first memorial service our family will attend, after a string of them, at which the person being celebrated lived what most everyone around them can testify was a full, long life, well-lived.

I used to think of this as the rule, and now I understand it to be the exception. An ideal, to be sure, but an exception.

I won’t memorialize her here, since so many more knowlegable and appropriate than I have done so already. I will borrow from one, though. Marjorie Osterhout, in her tribute at Literary Mama, shares this statement from Margaret Atwood about Olsen’s powerful impact on women writers, particularly working mother writers:

“Among women writers in the United States, ‘respect’ is too pale a word: ‘reverence’ is more like it,” novelist Margaret Atwood once wrote about Olsen. “This is presumably because women writers, even more than their male counterparts, recognize what a heroic feat it is to have held down a job, raised four children, and still somehow managed to become and to remain a writer . . . The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance but . . . for the near miracle of her survival.”

Olsen’s own words on this challenge, in Silences:

More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptable, responsive, responsible, Children need one now (and remember, in our society, the family must often try to be the center for love and health the outside world is not). The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one’s own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interruption, not continuity; spasmodic, not constant toil…. Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished, makes blockage–at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.

Olsen’s granddaughter Ericka Lutz dedicated two pieces from her Red Diaper Dharma column at Literary Mama to Tillie, “Death Watch,” and “The Things She Gave Me, The Things I Took Away.” From the beginning of “Death Watch”:

We’re swimming through mud. My husband Bill aches and falls up stairs. My daughter Annie forgets to eat; I eat too much. My heart hurts, a physical ache. Death has come to our family.

I met Tillie Olsen once, at a birthday party for the Buddhist feminist writer and teacher Sandy Boucher, who happens also to be my partner’s mother’s partner (our daughter’s GrandBaba). As a wannabe Bodhisattva and a would-be writer myself, I have found Sandy’s appearance in my life — via my beloved, via her mom — to be an especially sweet stroke of serendipity, a leaf of gold that unexpectedly fluttered down onto my shoulder. Tillie was a mother figure to Sandy, a mentor and a friend for thirty some-odd years. At this party were dozens of astounding women: writers, playwrights, composers, performers, filmmakers. Independent women of all ilks, many if not most lesbians, all feminists. Women whom my partner is accustomed to seeing in droves, as part of her mother’s life. Not me. For me, the birthday party was like a visit to an exotic orchid show, and I was slack-jawed with awe.

Alzheimer’s was already beginning to diminish Tillie, but not so much that she wasn’t able to enjoy the party, and not so much that she didn’t know what dear old friend was being celebrated. Pretty much. Regardless, it was clear that she was revered by many there (one of the celebrants, Ann Hershey, is currently finishing a documentary about her life and work). I watched Olsen, and watched all these tremendous women celebrating Sandy all around her, and took note of the enduring, even life-giving power of role models. For all of us, even those who are role models themselves.

I aspire to some humble version of this — role modeldom — for my kids. But more important, I hope I have the presence of mind to know when my model is fine, but not what they’re after, or need. May I be so lucky to be able to recognize and digest this, and may I help them to find a similar treasure trove of avatars, with such a beacon at the center.

Overheard under the ad hoc tent

Lil’ monkey: Pssst. Baby brudder. Now that we got some privacy I got to tell you some stuff. You listenin?

Lil’ peanut: Grpft smrfff grblzzzpft.

Monkey: I’ve been watchin them for a long time. The one that used to be your home, with the mama milk and the voice like honey and the longer hair: don’t be fooled; that’s the Bad Cop. The one that doesn’t smell like milk and talks in the falsetto Scottish accent while she does your diapers and has the shorter hair? That’s the Good Cop. But it’s only on little stuff. On big stuff, it’s freaky but it’s like they’re one parent. Different hair, same parent.

Peanut: Grpft smrfff grblzzzpft?

Monkey: Yeah, but trust me, after a while, we’ll find the crack in that façade. Now that you’re here, I think we can work together on them. Okay, so also? They’re really sappy. All they have to do is look at you and they get all googley. Just stare back. When you beome capable of moving it, I recommend you tilt your head down and then look up with just your eyes. That’s the best angle. Oh, and I’ve found that saying things with long and unexpected vocabulary words pretty much makes them fall off their chairs every time. It’s really fun to watch.

Peanut: Pfft! Pfft! Grpft smrfff grblzzzpft!!

Monkey: Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ll work with you on the vocab. Oh you’re so cute. Or should I say, pulchritudinous.

Peanut: Mmmmmmmmmmmpft.

Monkey: Alright. Let’s start with something easy. Like… Like… How ’bout let’s try, “Hey big sister! Please can I eat your brussels sprouts?”

Peanut: Grpft smrfff grblzzzpft.

Patience is a virtue

On Sunday we celebrated the adoption at our local kiddle park. After we all had our way with the bagels, I noticed the lil’ monkey had drifted away. This is where I found her. Staring at the swing, trusting, trusting, that someone would come and do right by her. No telling how many minutes she was staring a hole into the side of it. I love this girlie.

Later note: extending the adoption-fest theme here, check out Mombian’s post yesterday providing a synopsis of, commentary on, and links to a new national study, published in the American Sociological Review, which finds that — surprise — “Adoptive parents invest more time and financial resources in their children than biological parents.”

Read Dana’s sharp notes, and then the piece she links to by Shannon LC Cate at Peter’s Cross Station about Adoption Matters. Here’s a taste:

The presumption that family ties made between people without blood ties are less “perfect” than blood ties goes very much against the grain of queer family values in which non-biological ties are often as important or even more important than biological ones.