The Great Depression is an era that will always be remembered as a triumph. Many people were affected by economic conditions that were beyond their control. These conditions brought about a scarcity of jobs, losses of homes, and hunger for many. "At the peak of the Depression, 25% of the nation's workers -- one out of four -- were unemployed" (Glen 87). For some, like Tillie Olson, had lost her daughter during the Great Depression. In the short Story and autobiography "I Stand Here Ironing" written by Tillie Olson, discusses the horrific times that she as mother had to go through in trying to provide a healthy family connection and suitable living quarters for her family especially for her oldest daughter Emily.
Emily's mother was a young teen when the triumph had started to reach its peak. She was nineteen years trying to stay busy at a job working at the WPA, "Works Progress Administration which put unemployed people back to work on a variety of public projects" (Par. 1). She would rush home to care for her daughter. "When she was eighteen months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs, to who she was no miracle at all" (345). The feeling of having to leave your children at home while you go and work is such a guilty feeling, but having to leave them with someone unsuitable is not only a guilty feeling but also scary. Tillie struggled to work time from what was normal because Tillie's first husband had left them before Emily was a year old. Her father had written, "[C]ould no longer endure, [which he had] wrote in his good-bye note" (344). For the first six years of Emily's childhood, Emily's mother had to work while she was sent to her relatives to be looked after. She was unable to give Emily the nurturing that she needed as a growing child. Emily's mother stated, "I was a distracted mother, There were the other children pushing up, demanding" (349). Near the end of Olson's story she discusses briefly, how her wisdom had come too late. She was a young, exhausted, hard working mother, who realized that she was neglecting Emily because she had to tend to her young babies. This caused Emily a lot of unhappiness and grief. Tillie's Story is about a connection in her family that she feels she failed to have with Emily, her first child and she begins to see the effects that it has caused in Emily's behavior.
When Emily was eighteen months, she was left with a lady on the floor below them while Emily's mother went to work. She was unsuitable and left Emily there to cry herself to sleep. When Emily was two, she was ready for nursery school, Emily's mother realized after her daughter came up with many excuses for her to stay home that the, "life in the nurseries are only parking places for children" (344). However, she had no choice but to leave Emily at the nursery where teachers didn't care about the safety of their children while she looked for work. As Emily grew older and it became more difficult to care for her and the other babies, Tillie was soon persuaded to send Emily away to a convalescent home thinking that it would relieve some of the grief she was having. They said, "She can have the kind of food and care you can't manage for her, and you'll be free to concentrate on the new baby" (345). Many families during the depression had to give off their children so they could focus on keeping a job or caring for their families. Studies from Dr. Roosevelt's article "How the Depression Affected Children" showed that, "[the] U.S. economic output plunged almost 30 percent, and the unemployment rate soared to nearly 25 percent. As wages, prices and real-estate values spiraled down, millions of homeowners and businesses struggled to pay their debts. For many people, life was a daily struggle" (Par. 1). At the Convalescent, there was visiting days, on these days parents could go and see their children. However, instead of a normal day visit, parents and children were so distant apart that they had to yell to each other to hear one another. A rule said, "Not to Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection" (346). With the guilt of leaving your child to be in the hands of someone else, because you have no money to care for them, and not being able to hug them or show affection is even more hurtful. Because of the lack of nurturing, Emily was affected the most.
Because Emily had been under the care of so many people other than her mother, she began to grow cold inside. She became "a child of anxious" (349). She grew skinny and seldom smiled. Emily didn't know what it was like to be loved the way any child should. In Glens book Children of the Great Depression he stated that around, "250,000 children became homeless during the Great Depression" (85). Emily and her mother lacked a social connection and because of it Emily kept a lot to herself. She struggled in school and there for never went. The story starts with a phone call from Emily's teacher asking, "I wish you would manage some time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I'm sure you can help me understand her..." (343). This discussion is possibly the teacher noticing that something isn't right and wants to help Emily. Emily could be struggling because she is at home helping her mother with things around the house then focusing on herself and her education. "She would be struggling over books, always eating, and I would be ironing, and preparing food for the next day" (348). When Emily and her mother were together, her mother would try and hold her, Emily, would stay heartless and then push her own mother away. Emily didn't really get to have a happy childhood. "She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis ... trying to get lunches packed, hair combed..." (347). During the Depression parents were out most the day trying to find jobs, while their oldest child usually tended to the younger ones or they were left to be cared for by someone else. According to the book "Children of the Great Depression," written by Glen Holl Elder, "Boys and girls from economically deprived families were most likely to aspire grown-up status" (Glen 85). Children had to take the part of a parent while their mom or dad were working, by cleaning the house making lunch for the babies, working on the farm etc.
Despite the troublesome times in Emily's life, she still found some time to break out with some comedian acts to make her mother laugh. At one point in time Tillie asked Emily, "Why don't you do something like this in the school amateur show" (348)? Eventually Emily got enough courage to perform at her school. She immediately called her mom to say she did it and won first prize. Tillie was always proud of Emily and encourage her to be a little more confident in herself. "Now suddenly she was somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity" (348).
After the guilt of giving her daughter up twice, Tillie wanted Emily to know that she loved and cared for her very much. She wanted her to be more than herself she wanted to "only to help her know- help her make it so there is cause for her to know- that she is more than this dress on this ironing board, helpless before this iron" (349). This quote I feel this is the most important part of the story, this is Tillie's reflection of raising her children during the Depression and realizing the difficulty that she as went through working for WPA and low paid jobs. Tillie sees that she was able to get through these hard times and knows that Emily and her will too.
Not only does Tillie know that Emily and her will come around but she recognizes herself in Emily. She struggled growing up just like Emily has. Tillie was sixteen years old when she had to drop out of high school because she had to take care of her family during the Great Depression. She realized that Emily unintentionally had been raised the same way that she had. Tillie describes her daughter as, "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear" (349). After the three other children were born, Emily began to be pushed more and more away from her mother. She was neglected and resulted with her being to herself and never wanted to be touched. The depression affected many lives, and with the struggles of Tillie and her families, the commitment to their family was the most important thing they had. Thought the Great Depression was horrific, it brought many families closer at heart, and helped them make it through the most devistating time in our history.Works Cited
Cohen, Robert. "How the Depression Affected Children." Dear Mrs. Roosevelt. Online. Internet.
Chopin, Kate. "I Stand Here Ironing." Reading and Writing from Literature, 3rd ed. Ed. John E. Schwiebert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 343-349.
American Memory. "Great Depression and WW II 1929-1945" Americans React to the Great Depression. July 11, 2003. Library of Congress. Aug. 18, 2007.
Elder, Glen. Children of the Great Depression. 12 Aug. 1999. Academic Review.