Tillie Olsen's story begins with one line:
I stand her ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.
The mother's act of ironing is a metaphor for the remembrances and contemplations of the mother about her life, her daughter's life, and her relationship with her daughter. She goes back and forth over the past, trying to understand this relationship. The mother is unable to account for "all that life that has happened outside me, beyond me." For this reason, she cannot "total it all."
Certainly, however, there has been much to interfere with the mother/daughter relationship's being a close one. For one thing, poverty has forced the mother to place Emily in nurseries "that are only parking places for children" and for a time in an orphanage, a circumstance shared by many parents during the Depression. So, as the mother reflects,
"There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me."
In more introspection, the mother notes that she did not smile enough at Emily even though she performed acts of love:
"What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love."
The mother feels guilty about the time Emily had measles when she left her to go to the hospital to have her daughter Susan, especially because Emily did not get well. Now, when she has the time, the mother asks Emily, "Can I get you something?" But, Emily tells her no.
When the mother did try to have Emily released from the orphanage, it took eight months, and Emily was very thin. When the mother tried to hold her and love her, Emily's body would stay stiff, and after a while she would push away. And, although Emily's mother worries about her, Emily is distant. Yet, although they are not close, the mother does understand Emily; in addition, she has confidence in her daughter: She will find her way even though the mother's wisdom has come too late and she is too distant.
While there is an ambivalence in the mother's assessment of her parenting skills, and there is a distance beween her and Emily, there is also no question of the mother's love for her daughter. In a great act of love, the mother has faith in her daughter:
she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.