“Mrs. Olsen Never Smiled”
A profile of a peculiar woman who continues to
inhabit the recesses of my childhood memories
I guess I’m going to speak ill of the dead. Nothing terrible—but right off the top I need to say that I never liked Mrs. Olsen. She was the mother of my Aunt’s husband Harold. He had his issues as well. But he was not dark and removed as was she. When we visited my Aunt & Uncle’s home in Chicago for whichever holiday my mother and her sister had agreed upon that they would “do”—she was there. Sitting. Silent. A shock of white marrcelled hair that accentuated the sharp angles of her face. More bone than flesh, she was a poor man’s scarecrow—minus the straw hat. Always in black or grey.
In fact she seemed to exist in a black & white world. Surrounded by color and laughter and noise, she was that small Diane Arbus image that didn’t make the cut. Almost…but maybe too dark…if that’s possible. I don't remember her ever standing. Or rising. She was seated in the same chair when we arrived and she would be there when we left. Somehow I’m sure she made the four foot trip from her roost to the dining room table, as it was a small house—but I don’t recall ever seeing her actually do it. Mrs. Olsen didn’t really say very much. An occasional nod as she adjusted her hair, or a look to one side if surprised—but that was basically it. Did I mention she had a club foot?
Before I go into that, as I know it shaped her life, I want to give a little background. She hailed from Iowa and arrived in Chicago sometime in the 1920’s with her son Harold in tow. No husband, however. She had been married to a man named John Olsen, also of Iowa, but that’s where he must have stayed.Long after I’d met her and into my adulthood no one ever mentioned where Mr. Olsen had gone. It was sort of a silent pact that I couldn’t believe my mother or father would not violate. We talked about everything else—my father even offering that my Aunt & Uncle had never consummated their marriage because of Harold’s epilepsy. So, the verboten territory of a club-footed woman with a missing husband didn’t seem like it would be such a stretch to cross. But we never did cross it.
I imagine that living in the Midwest of the late 1800’s and being born with a club foot was not a ticket to popularity, promise or romance. And yet, she’d managed to triumph in one out of three. I think of her as a young girl of 16, perhaps not as hard looking then—blond hair—maybe a nice smile. She waited demurely on the front porch of her family’s home for John Olsen to come calling. Seated on the porch swing she’d carefully position her errant foot behind the other and slide them to the back. I can actually visualize a dim summer and smoke sort of light and a little breeze in the air. Visions of “The Glass Menagerie” flash before me. There in the fragrant air of a late June evening on the Iowa plains they would decide to plan a future—together. That’s why I say, “triumph” because romance is light years beyond the simple trappings of popularity or promise. Romance was probably the very last thing her mother and father thought she’d ever achieve.
Sitting in that chair, her long thin legs sheathed in dense nylons—I would study her feet from across the room. Her right foot was as expected and clad in the kind of sensible laced shoe that older women in the 1960’s preferred. Black and totally orthopedic with a slight blocky heel. The other foot was almost unimaginable. Not that a club foot was grotesque or horrifying—it was the shoe that was both grotesque and horrifying at the same time. Like some leathery embodiment of Frankenstein’s monster it seemed to rumble—though still as can be. An angry storm cloud trapped on the ground —it had a sort of life of its own. I ached when I thought of trying to walk—dragging that along with me everywhere I’d go. Not just the physical discomfort but its dreadful anchor-like presence in her life—every single day. No wonder she didn’t get up or walk out to the backyard where everyone would be sitting on a sultry summer’s night. Always in her chair. Perfectly groomed with simple jewelry—and a wire-thin gold wedding band. She would only stir to life when Harold would sit down at the piano and murder some unsuspecting piece of music. What he lacked in musical dexterity and passion he made up for in volume! The simple fact that the piano didn’t one day go in the backyard and hang itself was beyond me. But she showed her pride when he played. That you could see. It was barely there. Almost like a bit of pentimento—a painting beneath a painting. There was some evidence perhaps of another life—another time. Maybe she’d taught him. I’ll never know. Or, his phantom father. Perhaps he played.
Mrs. Olsen died—though I don’t know when. Given that my parents were somewhat “older” when they had me we were always going to wakes, funerals, sittings—you name it. Everything that made you Danish or Irish came into play in death. But Mrs. Olsen died almost anonymously. I don’t even know where. More than that I never even knew her first name. It was never offered. It was never asked. She was only—Mrs. Olsen.