“I’m almost a hundred years old,” says poet Hilde Oleson from her room at Seashore Point in Provincetown. “I’m not going to make myself a famous author, and that doesn’t matter.”
Sitting in her wheelchair, Oleson looks at her visitor with curiosity and joy. After a long walk through the nursing home’s mazelike hallways, her presence feels like a light in the darkness.
From 2011 to 2019, Oleson led a writing group at the Council on Aging in Provincetown, where she was instrumental in encouraging others to put their stories on paper. Among them was the late Beata Cook, who went on to write the beloved column “This, That and the Other” in the Provincetown Banner.
“My classes were popular,” says Oleson. “I always had plenty of people coming, but I really didn’t teach anything.” She laughs. Her approach, she says, was to tell students to write freely without concern for the judgment of others. That, she believes, is what living in Provincetown is about.
“People come here wanting to be accepted, and this town accepts us all,” says Oleson. “I’d tell my students, ‘What could you write about that would shock me? Nothing.’ Write with the intention of making me understand.”
Oleson came to writing later in life. She wrote her first poems at 84, shortly after moving to Provincetown. “My husband had died, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,” she says. “I didn’t expect to find an exciting new life here. That’s the magic of this place.”
The daughter of a Methodist minister in rural Vermont, Oleson has spent much of her long life in service to others, first as a social worker, then a teacher in underserved schools, then, after her retirement, as a volunteer for charitable organizations in Connecticut.
Once in Provincetown, Oleson again sought ways to be useful. Helping men living with AIDS, she found her affinity for language. “There were a couple of young men who encouraged me tremendously,” Oleson says. “One of them — he was at the end of his life when I met him — read one of my poems and told me I must keep on writing. No one had ever encouraged me like that or told me that I was wonderful at something. My parents felt that if you were told you were doing something well, you’d get vain. When people told me that my poems were worth looking at and started publishing them, it amazed me.”
Before moving to Seashore Point, Oleson would write at her desk every morning at five, the words just pouring out of her. “I don’t know where my poems come from,” she says. “I never have to correct a word. I never have to change the phrases. They come to me as they are supposed to be written.”
Oleson’s first poems were based on what she saw and felt while living with her husband at an assisted living facility because of his deteriorating health. Three years later, in 2011, her debut poetry collection, titled Love in the Nursing Home, was published by Finishing Line Press. She published three more books, including in 2016 a collection of poetry titled Why.
“What I wrote in Love in the Nursing Home were my observations, not my own experiences,” Oleson says. But since moving to Seashore Point six months ago, she has found them to be true reflections of the life she now lives. “The emotions, the longing — it’s all the same,” she says.
Since her move, Oleson has written only two poems. “This place isn’t conducive to writing,” she admits. Still, she’s been contemplating leading another writing group in order to change that.
For a moment, Oleson gazes past me, through the window. “I feel captive here, and alone,” she says. “And I’ve really never been alone in my life. We should go back about a hundred years when families took care of their own.
“That’s not easy,” she says softly, “but this isn’t easy, either.”
Oleson recalls a phone call she received from a man whose wife was ill. “He had a hard time communicating with her, but she responded to my poems,” she says. “After he carried his wife to bed, he would sit at the kitchen table and cry. He told me, ‘I don’t do that anymore. I sit and read your poems instead.’ ”
Oleson smiles, her face filled with wonder. “How amazing is it that I could keep one man from crying himself to sleep every night?” she asks. “I’ve had plenty of nights when I cried. It’s wonderful to know that your words can bring somebody else through that.”
By Hilde Oleson
The nurse tucks me in.
Good night sweet lady she says.
Suddenly she brushes back my hair
You are so beautiful.
My heart stops for a moment.
I know I am not beautiful.
Wrinkles and pallor where there once was porcelain
But I have waited all my life to hear those words.
So I lie here
And savor them.