We lost Grace Paley in late August. I’m a short story freak, and she’s up there with Maupassant and Kate Chopin and Sylvia Townsend Warner. But Grace Paley has given us so much more than her munificent talent. She has been a comrade, an indefatigable fighter for justice and a friend of my friends.
Take my buddy Shoshana Rihn, whom I haven’t seen for much too long. In 1975, after years of living underground, Shoshana was arrested while living with my friends at the rural Vermont pioneer commune known as the Total Loss Farm. The charge was an alleged bombing in NYC. One of our friends, the late Marty Jezer, himself a top-notch writer and activist, knew both Grace Paley and Dave Dellinger. They had both established homes in Vermont. On the strength of Marty’s recommendation, Grace and Dave agreed to head up Shoshana’s (successful) defense committee.
“I miss her personally,” Shoshana told me, “but she was just such a grand person in the larger scheme of things. She always had this mensch quality to her that made her so very approachable. She was the most big-hearted person I’ve ever known.”
Grace was very public about all her political involvements – many of my feminist and progressive friends of a certain age have worked with her. My only personal contact was when she and her partner were in the audience for a speech I gave at Dartmouth College on the Israeli women’s peace movement.
Shoshana feels Grace had three core identities: her family and community, her activism and her writing. I asked about the latter. “She thought of her writing as being just a lucky gift. I once asked her how she would encapsulate the essence of her message to students of writing. She said that when she wrote stories, she pictured one person – a good friend or close relative – that she was telling the story to. That’s the source of her natural tone.”
“Natural” is a word often used to describe Grace’s style. According to her LA Times obit the judges who awarded her the prestigious Rea Award ($25,000) in 1993 named her "a pure short-story writer, a natural to the form in the way that rarely gifted athletes are said to be naturals."
The poet Verandah Porche, my very close friend since 1965, was also tight with Grace and admired her lack of pretence. “She didn’t have to be the heavy. She would lend her weight to civil disobedience events. She would pick organizations that were good and lend them her credibility, wherever she was needed.”
I asked Verandah about Grace’s writing.
Stream of consciousness? James Joyce, cry in your beer. Her insight into the way voice carries unconscious thought, the rhythm of speech, the extravagance of simple utterance, just the way all of her nut cases talk to each other. The power of allegory. One of the ex-husbands is called Pallid and one is called Livid. She had that direct line to truth and she was so frisky and serious.
Nobody else has that pulse. Nobody else can surge in language the way she can. She just has so much to say and nobody else was marking that territory at all. It was terra incognita: Jewish women speaking their inner lives. Every sentence is a surprise.
Grace’s story “The Used Boy Raisers” exposes those two husbands – the ex-Livid and the reigning Pallid – having a civil pissing contest over the wife and the boys. Told in the wife’s weary voice, the reader can’t help but admire with what subtlety the woman handles the four males in her sphere.
There is also Grace’s envious ability to write in the voice of men. “An Irrevocable Diameter” is narrated by Charles C. Charley, a 37 year-old man – although he justifies his claim to be 32 by dismissing the 3 years in the military as a waste of time and his first two years as a period he doesn’t remember – who gets entangled with an alienated high school girl. Only Grace Paley was able in the 50s and 60s to write about young women’s sexual desires, older men’s statutory lusts and the intersection with dysfunctional families.
The last story in her last collection is called “Listening.” It begins with an exploration of older (hetero)sex: “So we lay down beside one another… with the modesty of later-in-life, which has so much history and erotic knowledge but doesn’t always use it.” And the story ends with a conversation between the narrator Faith and her good friend Cassie, who accuses her of omitting her from her world of stories. “Where is my life? It’s been women and men, women and men, fucking, fucking. Goddamnit, where the hell is my woman and woman, woman-loving life in all this?...Why have you left me out of everybody’s life?” The narrator is horrified by the revelation and begs, “How can you forgive me?”
Grace Paley died a week before my pals Anne and Carolyn went camping and chose me, out of all of their loved ones with our heads poking out of slummy nests and our beaks begging for the worm, they chose me to house sit Eden. Their home, Eden, sits over a wide lake that is visible from the glass fronts of each of the decked floors. The view is constructed to bring down my spiking blood pressure and it doesn’t matter what the weather is. If the sky is blue, the lake is a glassy turquoise; if it is overcast, the water is a textured silver mirror. That’s its trick – the lake – it looks good in anything. Cloud or moon or summer finery.
The reason why the timing of Grace’s death is relevant to this recitation is that these four days at Eden are my only summer vacation in a summer that has been beyond difficult. All I long to do is read – to partake in that exotic activity, one that used to be key to my creative life but which has now been reduced to a sleeping pill. There were days when, if I needed to put myself in dreamsville, I would read Spanish or Hebrew in the sure knowledge that within a page or two, I’d be unconscious and dribbling, squashing my eyeglasses into the pillow. Unfortunately, nowadays, English does the trick.
I have arrived early in the day in order to get the full benefit of this house in which each and every thing was selected for its beauty and comfort. My leaky apartment, known as the Shithole, is furnished with a hodge-podge of street acquisitions, hand-me-downs and cut-rate bargains from stores I now realize pay distant workers 15 cents a day to make.
I throw down my bags and make my way down the terraced garden that leads to my hosts’ lake dock, stopping at the penultimate level to stretch out in their sunny hammock. I’m reading Grace’s short stories, beginning with The Little Disturbances of Man, her first (of three) collection. The first paragraph of her first published story, from 1956, establishes her as a master.
As I pass through the stories, about families and the painful things that happen in them, I am distracted by a motorboat of men on the lake who keep pulling away from and then circling back to a black dot, which I come to realize after three times, four times, five times, is the son of the boat driver. He is trying to get this kid to water-ski, but each time the boat pulls away, the rope rips out of the boy’s hands and he bobs to the sad rhythm of failure while the boat circles back. Words are exchanged and only phrases waft my way – “Don’t be discouraged, Rodney.” “Hang on tight, Rodney.” Who names their boy Rodney nowadays?
I continue to read. But it’s six times and ten times and over a dozen times. The sun has disappeared, the light is failing, the head is still bobbing and I just want to scream, Enough! Families are complicated places to live, Grace whispers in my eyes.
Grace Paley brought a certain magic with her wherever she went. Verandah Porche remembers one time that Grace dropped by at the Total Loss Farm, “She came to visit during the great age of eating on the lawn and there was a sudden shower. Grace said, Hey look at that, and it seemed so awesome yet predictable that Grace would show up and so would a double rainbow over the barn.”