Becoming You Through Poverty and Adversity
How would your life be different if you grew up poor? What if your father left you and your mother? Would you be willing to give up your child because you can not afford to take proper care of her? Would you be willing to forgiving to your friend who has turned his back on you? Difficult situations and decisions that the main characters in, Tillie Olsens I Stand Here Ironing, and Sherman Alexies, This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, went through because of family circumstances and poverty. The adversity that arose from poor economic situations compelled the characters to make decisions that they otherwise would not make. However, without this adversity the characters would not have become the persons they did.
In, I Stand Here Ironing, the story begins during the great depression. Everyone was poor, no one worked, and those that did took what they could find. The mother, who is the main character and provides the monologue about her daughter, was young when she was married, young when her daughter was born, and young when her husband walked out on the family. Alone she had to provide for herself and her daughter. As a result her daughter was left to the care of people who she did not like, and who did not care for her very well. Her mother knew she needed her and did not want to be apart from her. She must have also known that separation would lead to emotional scarring. Repeatedly though, she made decisions that kept them apart. She had to work and there was no husband to help.
The mother made difficult decisions about how to keep her daughter. She sacrificed time together to maintain employment. This was at the expense of Emilys happiness and well being, and eventually led to an emotionless child. As an infant, I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emilys father (Olsen 316). The woman downstairs didnt care for her the way she should have, and this evident by the, weeping that could not be comforted. (Olsen 316) Soon the mother was unable to endure financially and emotionally so Emily was dropped off at the fathers. Emily returned home when she was two. Her mom was financially stable enough to bring her home, but she still was forced to take her to nursery school while she worked. She knew that nursery schools, are only a parking places for children. (Olsen 316). She knew the teacher was evil, and Emily hated it. The moms defense was, It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job. (Olsen 316) At age six or seven Emily did not like being home alone while her mom was out dating. Cant you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow? Will it be just a little while youll be gone? Do you promise? (Olsen 316) After remarriage and soon after her half sisters birth Emilys mom was convinced by the clinic that Emily should be turned over to the care of a state run convalescent home. This was the longest and most difficult separation for the child. Eight months away from home, with only minimal contact via mail and weekly visits where physical contact was not allowed. This left emotional wounds as is apparent to mom by her saying, I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while shed push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. (Olsen 318) This child was a victim of a broken home and a society in economic ruins. If Emilys mother had the family support and financial means, then Emilys separations from her would never have happened.
Somewhat similar circumstances are prevalent in, This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, in that the father is estranged, and that being poor is typical for those that live on the reservation. In contrast to Emily in, I Stand Here Ironing, the main character in this story, Victor, doesnt seem to suffer from his upbringing. He does, however, find himself in financial need, and like in, I Stand Here Ironing, this forces him to make a decision he otherwise would not have made.
Money is offered to Victor by his cousin, Thomas who proposed that he would finance the trip to recover Victors deceased fathers belongings as long as Victor allowed his accompaniment. Thomas was the social outcast; he was the weirdo. Nobody talked Thomas anymore because he told the same damn stories over and over again. (Alexie 415) Reluctantly, Victor agrees, and the two take the trip from Washington to Arizona to recover the remains, and what worldly possessions his dad left behind. They spent quality time together during their trip and on return to the reservation Victor is grateful for Thomas help and is also apologetic for his past actions and disassociation. Thomas understands that this sentiment is temporary and now that they are back home things will return to the way they were. Thomas tells Victor that he can repay him by listening to one of his stories. If Victor had the money to finance the trip himself, he would not have accepted Thomas offer. Furthermore if the father had remained on the reservation with the family there never would have been a trip to take in the first place.
In both stories poverty sets up what takes place. However it is adversity endured by Emily in, I Stand Here Ironing, and Thomas in, This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, that are central topics. Where the two stories differ is that in, I Stand Here Ironing, the mother justifies her actions because of being impoverished. She stands on, I did what I had to as her defense. However, this caused her child had to endure being awkward, and unpopular during her school years. When Emily becomes an entertainer, the mom cannot give explanation as how this happened considering all the hardships and aloneness she had undergone. Thomas in, This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, has a similar dilemma. He is the outcast, but not because of economic factors out of his control. He is an outcast because of his own convictions. He chooses to be true to himself at the cost of being alienated. Thomas doesnt get the break that Emily does. She comes out of her shell and finds her calling. Thomas hope lies in that hell be accepted by his cousin, and those he grew up mature. Even still Thomas seems to be happy with who he is. Despite poverty and adversity the characters in these stories become strong, resilient, and comfortable in their own skin.
McMahan, Elizabeth, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk, Linda Coleman. 9th ed. Literature and the Writing Process. White Plains, NY: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Olsen, Tillie. I Stand Here Ironing. McMahan et al. 315-320. Print.
Alexie, Sherman. This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona. McMahan et al. 414-422. Print.
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