I Stand Here Ironing
by Tillie Olsen
I Stand Here Ironing I Stand Here Ironing Summary
- The story opens with the narrator ironing. She is prompted to think about her daughter by someone's request (presumably a teacher's) to discuss ways to help her.
- The narrator goes back nineteen years, to the time when her daughter was born. The narrator herself was nineteen at the time, trying to get by during the Great Depression. Emily, as her daughter was called, was a happy baby.
- When Emily is eight months old, her father leaves them, and the narrator has to seek work. Emily is left first in the care of a neighbor, then with the father's family, as the narrator struggles to make ends meet.
- Emily finally returns to live with the narrator at the age of two. The narrator leaves her at a nursery school, where the conditions are awful.
- The narrator thinks of the caller's reference to Emily's talent for comedy. Looking back over Emily's tough childhood, the narrator isn't sure how Emily acquired this talent.
- Back to the flashback: The narrator remarries. When the narrator has a second daughter, Susan, Emily gets red measles. After the measles, Emily is still unwell, so they send her to a convalescent home in the country.
- It's only later that the narrator learns from Emily how horrible the convalescent home was.
- After eight months at the home, Emily still hasn't gained weight, so they send her home.
- As a child, Emily has trouble keeping up in her classes, and she has few friends. She often stays home, sometimes because of her asthma.
- At around this age, Emily still gets along with her younger sister Susan, but the narrator notes that since then, their relationship has soured.
- The narrator interrupts her reflections to change her son Ronnie's diaper. After she puts Ronnie to bed, she continues to think about Emily.
- The narrator thinks of the war years. Emily helps her mother take care of the other four children and the housework. Emily is so exhausted by her work that she is unable to keep up in school.
- To pass the time, Emily parodies the students at her high school. The narrator suggests that Emily put on an act for the school amateur show.
- Emily does, and her act is a hit. She does her comedy routine at other high schools and colleges, then in other cities. The narrator attends one of Emily's performances and is amazed by her transformation on the stage.
- The narrator's ironing is interrupted by Emily herself, who's home from school. Emily chats with her mom before she goes to bed.
- The narrator ends her reflections.
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