Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.
Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.
I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.
I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?
She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.
I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?
And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.
Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”
She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.
I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.
She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.
Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.
Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.
“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.
Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face
how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be
at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips