On the D train with Tillie

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, a significant rite of passage for my friends and me was being allowed to ride the New York City subway for the first time without the presence of any of our parental units.

Among the intricacies of subway riding, eagerly dissected by our adolescent set, were the rules associated with subway reading. One had always to consider the impressions created by the selection of reading material, and to choose items that showed one in the best possible light while not drawing too much attention.

But one day, some years later, I inadvertently broke that rule. I took Tillie Olsen with me on the D train, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably on the subway.

On that day, 35 or so years ago, my fellow passengers would have seen a young, dark-haired woman clutching a damp bandana in one hand and, in the other, a paperback copy of Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle — consisting of the title novella and three short stories.

In language by turns harsh and tender (and which won Tell Me a Riddle, the 1961 O’Henry Award for best American story), Olsen — rediscovered in the 70s and 80s by a new generation of feminist readers — chronicles a marriage in which an elderly husband and wife, confronting the disappointments of their lives, seem unable to make peace. They are unable even to agree on what “peace” might be in their final years, until the wife’s dying takes them into an intimacy neither could have imagined.

How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached no one could say — but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots…split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.

Olsen also tore out my heart — so much so that I scrapped my plan to teach the story to my English classes for fear of bursting into tears.

The woman responsible for my underground meltdown was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, social justice activists who had emigrated to Nebraska. Olsen (then Lerner) left school at 11th grade, began her only novel (Yonnondio) at the age of 19 but published it 40 years later, and published her much-anthologized first story (I Stand Here Ironing) when she was 43.

Olsen’s slim output, barely a few hundred pages, was in itself testimony to a major theme of her writing and her life, and the subject of her 1978 nonfiction work Silences. That book both portrays Olsen’s struggles to write as she raised four daughters while holding low-paying jobs, and examines obstacles faced by writers — particularly women — who were not part of the mainstream of “literature,” or the realities of whose lives overwhelmed the yearning to create.

“What are creation’s needs for full functioning?” Olsen asked. “….I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me.”

Still, she wrote enough by the time of her death in 2007 so that we wonder what miracles on the page might have been available to us if life were different, or what would have been lost to us if she had not received in 1955 a fellowship that provided the economic stability to pursue her writing.

I thought and spoke of Olsen again a few semesters ago, when students in my Women’s Movement course were discussing the feminist activism that led both to the rediscovery of voices like hers, and to the flowering of a feminist cultural movement that redefined patriarchal notions of what were “important” or “appropriate” matters for creative endeavor.

The silencing of women across time and place has been accomplished by measures ranging from legislation, to ridicule, to physical and psychic brutality. As long as that silencing continues — and make no mistake, it does; covertly in some quarters, overtly and violently in others — we need to remember and recount the extraordinary courage, persistence and imagination required by those outside of the mainstream to have their voices heard. As Margaret Atwood wrote about Olsen: “The applause that greets her is not only for the quality of her artistic performance, but…for the near miracle of her survival.”

© Rhea Hirshman 2016

12 thoughts on “On the D train with Tillie

  1. Hedda Kopf

    A wonderful reminder of Olsen’s important and exceptional work. “Tell Me A RIddle” was made into a quite beautiful film by the actor and director, Lee Grant- worth finding! Looking forward to reading more of your very special blogs.

  2. Alison Johnson

    Great piece – I am going to send this to my writing group (my writing teacher grew up in Brooklyn & I think she’ll love this piece :). Also, I love your tag line – Good grammar, good politics, good works, and a good time – that is just so perfect!!

  3. Shirley Pripstein

    My acquaintance with quality literature is somewhat limited (for years I read only escapist mysteries or spy novels), but somehow I did manage to read “I Stand Here Ironing.” It is a story that has haunted me ever since I read it. I think Tillie Olsen captured the thoughts and spirit of my own mother. Thanks you, Rhea, for bringing her to the attention of your readers. She deserves to be widely read and not forgotten. Shirley Pripstein

  4. Michelle Welsh

    My girls and I enjoyed this piece.
    I too remember being able to get on the train all by myself at 14. It was exhilarating… 🙂

    We know what our next reading assignment is…

  5. Patricia Klindienst

    Thank you for writing this, Rhea. I love your voice here. She was so important to that moment of awakening for our generation. Your rite of passage is bitter sweet, your writing, as always, such an exemplary balance of reason and feeling. Your sodden bandana brought me back to my own first encounter with Tell Me A Riddle. O how she tears at the heart! A rite of passage indeed! And then the hard lessons of Silences. “….lives overwhelmed the yearning to create” thwarted by the harsh realities of working low wage jobs. What a woman, what a voice. Thank you for this, for teaching her work, for being one of her heirs.


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