Olivia was born in Kalispell, Montana, but cradled in the Midwest by a 20-year-old mother, one of 14 children, and a father raw from both the harsh life of a Missouri dirt farm and his stint in the infantry during World War II. She discovered writing in third grade at St. Ambrose Elementary School when her teacher, Sr. Mary Eustace, direct from Ireland, rewrote the paragraph she was assigned with such flare that Olivia tried ever after to emulate her. Her urge to write was cemented when, as a high school senior, she wrote a “fairytale” that sparked so much controversy she was threatened with expulsion.
At 19 she married; at 20, became a mother. A favorite professor hooked her on poetry, but she gave up college to help support her family, and the urge to write went underground. For the next 14 years she worked as a secretary, then as a stenotype reporter--capturing other people’s words--for 26 more. At age 52 she divorced her old life, her first husband, longstanding career, and hometown. Olivia remarried and relocated with her current husband, a retired FBI agent, to Bluffton, South Carolina, where they watch birds and alligators and dance the Carolina Shag like nobody’s watching. She writes what she likes in her own words.
As I listened to friends exchanging high school memories recently, some of my own emerged from the dusty past, among them recollections about my very first typewriter. Well, yours, technically, the one you brought home from the Royal McBee plant where you spent your days putting them together on the assembly line. It was tucked into a brown leatherette carrying case, the whole gizmo light enough that even at 85 pounds I could hoist it myself. So I hauled the alien contraption up to that old desk I shared with Paula --13 and apparently not interested in it-- and there it sat, mute but as challenging as a gauntlet.
Typewriters did not come with bouncing balls or even electric power at that time. They had manual carriage returns and keys that required finger strength as well as dexterity. Never comfortable with mechanical objects, I approached it cautiously and with low expectations of my ability to master its rows of metal hammers. That is, until the typing manual arrived compliments of Mrs. Beezley, an old gray-haired neighbor lady—was she even 45?-- who taught what was referred to then as “business” courses at Draughon’s Business College, a place we understood at St. Agnes to be somewhat akin to a home for unwed mothers. You only went there if, shame, oh shame, you were not college material.
WHEN I LEAVE THE AIRPORT
my feet get a move on toward the car
slicing through smells fusty as mushrooms
conceived in early rains.
In the crisp air the leaves fly and cackle
like a gaggle of witches planning Halloween.
Fall slides down the chimneys,
kindling the fires that burn the chill
that warm the heart.
I step out slow, confront the uphill sidewalk
its concrete heaved and broken
like the old steps climbing the porch
mere bumps on the way home,
that sacred word holding out its velvet arms
forgiving the summer-hard droughts
the withered, shriveled weeds.
Isn’t that the sweet smell of love in the house?
Olivia Stiffler, 2011/2013