Tillie Olsen

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The theme of Guilt/Regret is introduced in "I Stand Here Ironing" from the main character and her life events. How does the convalescent home play a role in the theme guilt/regret?

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"I Stand Here Ironing" opens with a woman trying to figure out how to help her once obedient and happy daughter, Emily, who now has trouble and is being referred by what we can assume to be a teacher for help. Themes of abandonment permeate this story, and such themes are what eventually make the role of the convalescent home surface as a symbol of guilt and regret. Even from the beginning, the reader can sense the feelings of duty, servitude, helplessness, cluelessness, and guilt emanating from the motherly main character.

You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? [...] There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me

The  background story within the main story is that the man of the house abandons the family home when the girl in question is eight months old. This leads the main character to fend for herself as a head of household with little money. As a result of her lack of resources, she has to render Emily to the hands of a neighbor for her care, which again leads up to the topic of abandonment and loneliness in the story. The daughter does not return to her mom until she is two, and right there and then she is further sent to a bad nursery facility where things again go South for both women. Abandonment continues to be a pervasive motif in the story.

After the main character remarries, she has a second daughter, Susan, but Emily contracts measles. Emily is sent to a convalescent home and this seems to seal her fate as someone who depends on her environment for help; Emily is basically made into a feral character with no support nor backbone to help her. Her mother is, perhaps, her only resource, and she is too busy, and too engaged in other dynamics, to help Emily. 

Guilt and regret come from the symbol of the convalescent home because, as a result of this third instance of abandonment in Emily's life, the most amazing thing occurs: Emily acquires a gift for comedy. This dramatic irony stems from the extreme misery that Emily endures, added to the fact that, since she lacks friends and support, she has made it a point to look back at the world around her and mock it. 

However, this does not take away from the fact that the mother is helpless and ignorant. She is ignorant because she has not taken the time, as the story shows, to reflect upon all the things that are going on around her, and on the fact that all of her actions have affected her daughter tremendously. We could argue that the mother in "I Stand Here Ironing" is not intelligent enough to learn from her actions and, instead of being proactive, is reactive to her situation and resorts to place blame in her circumstances and her lack of help. 

The convalescent home is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of her lack of control in life; rather than caring for her daughter herself, or looking for a good place, she had to run with the flow and get whatever was available at the most convenient time because she had already locked her time with yet another marriage and other children. In all, it is clear through the messages sent by the weak messages of the main character that Emily certainly does not fare well in her family home, and that she may be bound to be abandoned again, if not physically, emotionally. 

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