Tell Me a Riddle (Olsen)

In Robert Coles’ book, The Call of Stories, he raved about Olsen’s collection so much that I had to find it. Though first published in the late 1950s, the writing seems to belong to another age, another place – neither of which I can name. Coles extolled the stories for what they did for the moral imagination, but I think I’d have read with others to have that conversation. The 4th story (Imagine, only 4 stories in a collection. Originally, it sold for $2.45; I paid $2.99 for it) is the one I found most compelling. It is also the title story, and it is a heartbreaking account – almost a poem – of the death of a grandmother. Her loving but perpetually irritated husband wants to sell the house and move to The Haven, but her declining health prompts travel – for example, to see the new grandchild that her daughter is glad to have had for her (the grandmother) before she (the grandmother) has died. But the grandmother wants no part of the child. While she’s there, another grandchild says, “Tell me a riddle, Grammy.” She replies, “I know no riddles, child.” She simply wants to go home where, in contrast to her own childhood, she has enough rooms (the plural is deliberate). They run into a former friend who has gone from 8 rooms to 1, and the grandmother is distraught. She calls the one room a “coffin.” When the end is clearly in sight, the children come “[t]oo late to ask: and what did you learn with your living, Mother, and what do we need to know?” But the grandmother, again, wants no part of this. “Let the living,” she says, “comfort each other.” Near the end, I found myself feeling for the grandfather as “he moved his hand bit by bit over the mirror to see what of the reflection he could blot out with each move, and felt that at any moment he would die of what was unendurable,” namely, her slow death.

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