The entire Literary Mama community mourns the passing of Tillie Olsen, who died on New Year’s Day at age 94. She was — and is — a hero to women writers everywhere, especially to those of us who try every moment of every day to balance writing with motherhood.
Lengthier and more formal obituaries can be read in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and they do a fine job reciting the facts of Tillie’s life. But Tillie was more to us than a resume, more than a prominent writer and early feminist.
She was a mother who wrote, and wrote well.
It wasn’t easy. Born in 1912 and a mother at age 19, Olsen lived in poverty for years, working in one menial job after another while raising four daughters. In the nooks and crannies of her time, she wrote about women like her, women whose voices were silenced by the demands, needs, and expectations of everyone around her. But still she kept writing. In her own words:
Time on the bus, even when I had to stand, was enough; the stolen moments at work, enough; the deep night hours for as long as I could stay awake, after the kids were in bed, after the household tasks were done, sometimes during. It is no accident that the first work I considered publishable began: “I stand here ironing.”
Olsen’s body of work is slim: only five stories, an unfinished novel and several poems written over seven decades. But her work was powerful; it unlocked and opened doors to other women like her — like us — who insist that art and motherhood are not contradictory, but complementary. “[Children and art] are different aspects of your being,” she once said. “There is . . . no separation.” A life combining meaningful work and motherhood “could and should be” possible for women.
And so we grieve, for the loss of a mother and writer who — in many ways — made the existence of Literary Mama possible. “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.”
But while our grief is for a public figure who felt close to our hearts, there is one among us who mourns for a beloved grandmother. Tillie Olsen’s granddaughter, Ericka Lutz, is a Senior Editor and columnist at Literary Mama. Her column, Red Diaper Dharma, explores the legacy of growing up in a family of strong people like Grandma Tillie, and includes her personal remembrances in the most recent installment.
Tillie’s 95th birthday would have been this Sunday, January 14. Her family requests that on her birthday, people whose lives have been touched by Tillie gather with friends in their homes and public libraries to celebrate her life and to read her work together. For more information about how to email the family or to make contributions in Tillie’s name, see the Tillie Olsen memorial Web site.