Forty years ago in San Francisco a courtship began. I call it that now, recognizing how very attractive Tillie Olsen was to me, remembering the promise she embodied of warm support for my writing and love for my singularly cynical, alienated self. I was not yet thirty. Tillie, in her mid-fifties, had been recognized by the New York literary establishment and received various grants and honors, but had not yet been given the widespread enthusiastic appreciation that came to her later through the Women’s Liberation Movement of the seventies. I wrote to tell her how much the extraordinary literary achievement and searing emotional honesty of Tell Me a Riddle had affected me. With the letter I sent some of my own stories (including one called “The Suburbs of a Secret”) so that she would know that I too worked to express some truths through writing.
She responded with a phone call, and a few days later, on October 22, 1965, I received a postcard written in tiny cramped script:
Dear true writer –
Thank you for the heart touch of (sending) your stories –
And thank you again for caring to write me.
I was stiff and shy over the phone – could not say that –
“Secret” will return after I have read it again.
My heart warmed at the acknowledgment, and I was delighted when she called to invite me and my husband to dinner at her house. I sensed in her a promise. Indeed, in the mid-sixties when I first began to know her, Tillie breathed fresh air into my English-literature-addled brain. With barely a high school education, she had read more than any English major I’d met, and her definition of so-called “literature” reached far beyond the male great-writer canon to encompass the work of such previously dismissed groups as women, workers, immigrants and poor folks. Literature to her was daily bread, sustenance and hope.
She was a vigorous, joyful woman who walked all over San Francisco, swiftly I can attest, as I was often huffing along behind her, even though I was longer -legged and twenty-four years younger than she. She took public transportation everywhere she could not walk, and relished her encounters with strangers on buses and street corners (and occasionally brought them home with her). She laughed often and heartily at public and political absurdities, and with an impish grin invented inexcusable puns. She was just my cup of tea!
For her part, she was interested in me as a young writer and a working woman, and we began to meet regularly for lunch or dinner. Each month or so, I arrived at her place in the St. Francis Square Cooperative Apartments (a union-built housing development), and we strode briskly past the balconies of the Square, then mounted a walkway over busy Geary Street to descend into Japantown. We chose from among her favorite restaurants and spent an hour or two there, intently talking.
On one particular day, when we entered the restaurant, the waitress approached swiftly. Tillie seemed delighted to see her, eager for me to know her.
“This is Akiko—am I saying the name right? (placing a hand on the Japanese woman’s elbow, then turning to me again) She always takes such good care of me when I come here.”
As we slid into a booth, Tillie asked after the waitress’s mother, and leaned toward her, commiserating. When Akiko had gone to bring us our menus, Tillie continued, to me, “It was such a shock when her mother had the stroke, I don’t know how they’re managing.”
I settled into my seat, looking across the table into Tillie’s azure gaze, at her sculpted face, her thick wavy gray hair cut short. She shrugged off her navy sweater and unwound a light blue scarf from around her neck.
We ordered sushi, Tillie, more adventurous than I, going for raw fish. After another solicitous exchange with Akiko, with our food before us, Tillie wanted to know what I was up to, what I was writing. I told her of my efforts to develop a story I had just begun, and she listened, munching her sushi and nodding. Something I said called up for her the work of Olive Schreiner, the South African novelist and feminist, and she talked warmly of Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm and The South African Question, speaking of how one woman, without a formal education, could so eloquently express the truths of her people and her country. She told of a writer contemporary with Schreiner, Rebecca Harding Davis, whose Life in the Iron Millspresents a powerful portrait of American miners’ lives in the late nineteenth century. The message to me, always, was, You too can do this crucial work, you can give voice to the voiceless. .
Tillie’s loyalty to working class people permeated everything she did, and I sympathized, having grown up in a scruffy suburb of Columbus, Ohio, among factory workers, my dad coming home each day in overalls from his work as a carpenter and (later) a small contractor. Tillie and I spoke often of the Vietnam War, currently raging. I told her of my experiences knocking on doors to urge people to protest, and she made suggestions for approaching the housewives who opened the doors. Then, starting from my narrow personal perspective, she broadened the subject to analyze the massive anti-war activism that was building, drawing parallels with the labor protests of the past and the current civil rights movement, naming the boys in St. Francis Square who had gone to Nam or escaped to Canada, expressing her caring for each in his difficult choice.
The more I listened to Tillie, the more I allowed the steady light of her belief to soften me, the more I received the gentle but tough solicitude that she exuded. I was a child of Midwestern Republicans, struggling to find my own perspective on the world; just before moving to San Francisco, I had been living in Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain for a year, an experience that awakened my curiosity about politics and showed me the oppressive power of military dictatorship; I was still disoriented by my brother’s suicide ten years before, haunted by his despair. I was in need of guidance, a broader view. In Tillie, I found a perspective new to me. Along with her husband Jack Olsen, she believed passionately in the goodness of human beings, our power to come together and demand justice. They were former Communists; Jack, a printer and union organizer, later became the founding director of the Labor Studios Program at San Francisco City College. I began to know and feel comfortable with Tillie’s four grown daughters who would sometimes be visiting her house when I arrived. Now and then Tillie and Jack and I went out to dinner together, or visited in their apartment, or more rarely, in mine; Jack always treated me with warmth and interest, making me feel I was enfolded in the family, truly accepted as I was. I came to love him..
Tillie regularly challenged my limitations. For example, in one lunch visit she shook my new-found comfort in working class identity and expanded my concept of empathy. As we sat across the table from each other consuming our nigiri and maki, she described her recent stint as writer-in-residence at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While I was pleased (and envious) that she had been given such an opportunity, still my class prejudice rose up to tighten me: hadn’t she felt out of place among people of such wealth and influence? But Tillie did not share my limitation. She expressed concern for the Harvard faculty wives, deploring the ways in which even these privileged, educated women were thwarted and dismissed.
Sometimes we struggled, for Tillie was a writer of exceptional accomplishment, a mature artist, and I was a young beginning writer hungry for approval. Looking back at old journals, I find letters we wrote when one or the other of us left San Francisco—she was often away at artist colonies in New England and Canada, I went to Illinois for a year when my husband began graduate school. Some of these letters evoke our conflicts. From Illinois I had sent her several stories, asking for her opinion. I thought I wanted her honest critique, but now I realize that I wanted her to approve of my work, to admire it even, to encourage me as a mother supports a stumbling child. Tillie told me what she honestly thought of the stories, and, not able to receive the criticism, I plunged into resentment and discouragement, convinced that my work was no good, comparing myself to her. I wrote her about this, asserting, “The only way to see Tillie Olsen is to get oneself out of the light.”.
She responded—again in the nearly illegible tiny handwriting, with its many stops and starts.
Sandy – the light belongs to all (as the dark when one needs and the shadows). The only way to see Sandy Boucher or Tillie Olsen or anyone is in the light, the dark and the shadows that belong to us all (to live is moving in and out of all three). Yes, you know that yet somehow the respect care affection I felt (feel) for you – writer and human (indissoluble) – came to you as a consigning: Tillie Olsen. in the light, Sandy Boucher to the dark.
[She quoted another line from my letter] “Sandy you are never going to do anything that Tillie Olsen can admire.” [and responded] I am Tillie Olsen – you cannot speak for me. – I admire what you have done – what you are) [something scratched out] Forgive my clumsiness that I did not make that unmistakable.
It was because I “admired” – that quality of true writing in your stories (and in your being) (most in “The Border Incident”) – that I was drawn in, made your work mine (as we do with any writing for which we care) – and as if it were mine, could not be reconciled to the places that were not right, the failures (failures within the achievement) – [something scratched out] wrong, wrong — for you are not I, could not yet have the craft, resources, capacities it has taken me so long to work towards (and still do not have in the measure I need). Instead of confirming your achievement and strengthening you on your way —
“To bear oneself as one is . . . to struggle on . . . not to give up” – from a letter of Van Gogh. Have it over my desk at home and copy it for you from memory. [some words scratched out]
Unsatisfactory letter — of love — and admiration
Your friend who
misses you –
I felt both chastened, and honored. She had responded to me as an equal, had critiqued my stories with the same rigor that she applied to her own work. How thrilling that was, how daunting, and how vastly encouraging.
As the seventies began with the great opening and excitement of the women’s movement, Tillie became famous, much sought after to lecture and read, much bestowed with honorary academic degrees. Jack and Tillie had gatherings at their home, in which feminist writers and college instructors mixed with Leftists and labor activists. She began to be very busy, balancing family obligations with public appearances and travel, having less and less time for her own writing. She became a star, and began to draw the kind of criticism that visibility engenders. Some women writers with many books to their credit began to grumble that Tillie’s fame was undeserved, based on the production of just one book rather than an extensive body of work. They begrudged her the prestigious grants she received, the offers to speak and read her stories. Because I thought this criticism came chiefly from envy and because I believed that Tillie was a writer of such depth and talent that she deserved everything she got, I staunchly defended her.
But as she became more celebrated and sought after in the world, she was often grievously overcommitted and would make a date with me that she had to cancel at the last minute, or would cut short a visit without warning because something else called her. In those instances I would be plunged back into the conviction that I was less than she, not valued as I ought to be. Now I look back on that young Sandy and see her confusion, her efforts to define herself as human being and writer, how she chaffed against Tillie’s large persona. I began to feel that Tillie treated me not as a friend but as a student or even as one of her daughters. As much as I felt accepted by her family, I thought I did not want to be another daughter to her; as much as I benefited from her comments on my stories, I told myself I did not want to be her student. I wanted to be her equal in our personal relationship.
Now I blush at the letter I wrote her, questioning the quality of our friendship, for it was I who had put her in the role of mentor and continually asked her to relate to me that way, I who so needed the nurturance of her motherly warmth.
From her cabin at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, she answered me:
The part of your letter—you/me—To me your definition of friendship held true. “we face each other as human beings & care about what happens between us as well as to us & try to make it better if it’s bad” though the last, Christmas did damage [she had promised a session of criticism of a novel I was writing, and had not shown up]compounded by the bad non-calling months after I came home in the spring, our hours together (human being to human being) over the years were meaningful, precious to me. But they came to you, you say, as role (writer to writer) lecturing (teacher to pupil), withholding of myself, not friendship, exchange, personal relationship . . . That was the best of me Sandy. Perhaps you can try to understand that or why I believe that at least.”
Reading the letter, I missed her very much. When she returned to San Francisco and we met for dinner, she went out of her way to ask my opinion, listen rather than hold forth. I felt heard and responded to. Commenting on a story I had sent her, she said of the last sentence: “It was not your own voice speaking. Anyone could have written that sentence. It’s outside the vision of the story.” I told her I had felt that I was treading a thin line between the maudlin and the powerful, and she answered, “If you’re not taking that risk, then the story isn’t worth writing!” So we returned easily into the warmth of our relationship.
The years passed, Tillie published Yonnondio, a novel of the thirties that she had written as a young woman and was later found by Jack among some old papers. She wrote and compiled Silences (1978), a nonfiction book that examined the conditions—economics, class, employment, motherhood—that prevent writers from realizing their potential. She reiterated her belief that creative ability resides in all of us. And stated her understanding of why so few of us are able to produce art. “Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.” A major essay in the book is the stunningly detailed and impassioned “One Out of Twelve:Women Who Are Writers in Our Century” which she had given as a speech in 1971 to the Modern Language Association Forum on Women Writers in the Twentieth Century. It points out that in college literature courses of that year only one out of twelve assigned books was written by a women, and discusses in depth the reasons why. This is a historical document of great importance—among the first courageous examinations of the conditions for women writers. Tillie worked with the Feminist Press to republish books by and about working class women, such as Daughter of Earth by Agnes Smedley and Life in the Iron Mills by her beloved Rebecca Harding Davis. And then, in 1984, she put together a literary “daybook and reader” for the Feminist Press called Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother, which contains Tillie’s writing as well as excerpts from many famous and lesser-known women.
When the women’s movement opened my eyes, I left my husband and my secretarial job, helped form a women’s liberation living collective and fell in love with a woman. Soon I was absorbed full time in the feminist activism of the seventies. Then, in the eighties, I began to publish books and to pursue a Buddhist practice, while still engaging in feminist and antinuclear activism. Tillie and Jack were my companions through all these explorations.
Tillie initially reacted with puzzlement when I turned from fiction to nonfiction, bringing my political and spiritual interests together in books on women’s involvement in Buddhist practice. Being such a secular person herself, she did not understand how I could be gripped by the spiritual imagination. But soon she saw that I was identifying the same inequality and chauvinism in the Buddhist world that hinders women in general, and she recognized the impulse under the subject matter—to seek out the truth, to bring to light the perspective of those who are rarely heard.
Particularly I remember one afternoon in their living room after my first Buddhist book had been published. Jack sat me down and began to ask about this spiritual practice. How did it affect the person who did it? What was the goal? As I talked, he asked more questions: he really wanted to know. I did my best to explain the nature of Buddhist practice as I experienced it, and Jack, his brown eyes intent, listened without judgment. Throughout our conversation, he conveyed to me: “I want to understand what you’re doing because I care about you as a human being and because I trust that if you have chosen to do this thing there must be good in it.” That was Jack’s special gift to me.
After he died, unexpectedly, in 1989, I came to spend an afternoon with Tillie. We did not go out to Japantown, but sat next to each other on the glassed-in porch of their apartment, overlooking the lawns and sidewalks and playgrounds of St. Francis Square. Tillie held my hand, and I felt how shaken she was, imagined how vulnerable and newly lonely she must feel. In our wordless presence together, as we sat for a long time watching the afternoon light fade, I experienced my own sorrow and felt my awe at anticipated loss (for I was entering my fifties). There on her porch, our hands warmly clasped, I felt my willingness to be an anchor for her in the disorienting sea of grief. That afternoon made clear the evolution of our relationship, from its mentor-student inception and the myriad frictions and adjustments over the years, into the friendship that it remained until the end.
In her late eighties, Tillie became less able to live by herself in her San Francisco apartment and was persuaded to move to Berkeley to inhabit a cottage behind the house of her youngest daughter Laurie, where Laurie and husband Mike could look after her. I was glad that she would be on my side of the Bay, for I had moved to Oakland years before. Now we had our lunches at a Chinese restaurant on Telegraph Avenue and walked the broken, tree-shaded sidewalks of Berkeley. More and more we gave up our favorite topics of literature and politics to discuss the food we were eating, the tree that we passed on our walk, as Tillie’s mental capacities narrowed. And we laughed often.
Then, two years ago, Tillie’s daughters made the hard decision to move her to live in an Alzheimer’s home in Oakland, where she would receive the constant assistance she had come to need. I visited her there, every week entering the beautifully appointed residence to sit with Tillie, share a joke with her, hear her read aloud to me, join her in singing old labor songs.
Although much of what we cherished in Tillie was gradually disappearing, her essence remained—that caring about others that had so centrally informed and motivated her life and art. She concerned herself with the other residents, worrying about their welfare. “Ah, she’s having a hard day,” she would say of a woman who wandered by plaintively calling, “Where is my baby?” Tillie reached out to touch her, tried to persuade her to sit with us, let herself be comforted. When an attendant approached Tillie to give her a pill, Tillie clasped the woman’s hand, and sometimes kissed it, telling her how special she was.
During our visits I puzzled about the relationship between the richly accomplished, passionately engaged woman she had been for decades, and this small, tender, whimsical person she had become. I was sometimes pierced by the mystery of how her remarkable capacities—that had opened doors for so many people, that had changed us and the world—could have left her. She reminded me of my own destination in oblivion, as my memory and my knees have begun to falter, and my face in the mirror some mornings looks like an impostor’s aging visage.
Each week I returned to sit with her, hear her tell me she loved me, watch her care for others, and she still taught me. I tried to arrive at a simple place for the two of us, not asking her to remember who she had been, which could leave her confused and anxious; as I rode up in the elevator to see her I did my best to shed my memories and my expectations. We would enter the present moment together, where her love of life still pulsed strongly. We could spend twenty minutes examining and remarking on a vase of artificial flowers on the table in the lounge, happily appreciating their color and shape and suggestive qualities. “That one looks like a lion, don’t you think?” Tillie asked me, glancing up at me with her cornflower blue eyes, and then, “Ah,the red of this one!”
Tillie Olsen, photograph taken by her daughter Julie Olsen Edwards.
Note: Tillie Olsen died on New Year’s Day, 2007, at the age of 94.
books, including the groundbreaking Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New
Buddhism, Heartwomen: An Urban Feminist’s Odyssey Home, and color="#666666">Discovering Kwan Yin: Buddhist Goddess of Compassion. She participated in the
women’s liberation and anti-nuclear movements during the seventies and eighties, and continues her activism now
through the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In 2006 she was chosen as an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism by the United Nations.
Her latest book, Dancing in the Dharma: the Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, is
the first biography of a Western Buddhist female teacher, as well as an exploration of the student-teacher relationship
over a quarter-century.