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Jewesses with Attitude

Grace Paley, z”l

Grace Paley died on Wednesday. She was 84 and had been sick, so it should not have come as a surprise, but when I heard the news I felt a very sharp sense of loss. So I decided I would spend the night with her, reading through my well-worn copy of her Collected Stories, her poems in Begin Again: Collected Poems, and her essays in Just as I Thought. And reading her words made it even harder to believe she’s gone – her stories just radiate life, in all its banality, warmth, irrationality, sadness, and love.

I’ve blogged about Paley here before, so I won’t repeat my paean to her activism and storytelling, in all its Jewish and feminist sensibilities. Instead, I’ll share some of her words.

First, from a very short story called “Living,” which begins: “Two weeks before Christmas, Ellen called me and said, ‘Faith, I’m dying.’ That week I was dying too.”

Faith, it turns out, seems to be bleeding heavily after an abortion, but she recovers; her friend Ellen, however, actually dies a few weeks later. The story ends with a recollection of women’s friendship, which Paley suggests is central to what living is about:

“But I often long to talk to Ellen, with whom, after all, I have done a million things in these scary, private years. We drove the kids up every damn rock in Central Park. On Easter Sunday, we pasted white doves on blue posters and prayed on Eighth Street for peace. Then we were tired and screamed at the kids. The boys were babies. For a joke we stapled their snowsuits to our skirts and in a rage of slavery every Saturday for weeks we marched across the bridges that connect Manhattan to the world. We shared apartments, jobs, and stuck-up studs. And then, two weeks before last Christmas, we were dying.”

I also came across this poem of Paley’s – titled “Here” -- about being an old lady. I love the images and satisfaction in this poem, and this is one of the ways I’d like to remember her:

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 sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration
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

I know I’ll keep visiting with Grace Paley through her words. May her memory be for a blessing.

More on: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry,
2 Comments

"Here" has always been one of my favorite of Grace Paley's poems, not least because I think it captures the way she was able to balance so many facets of a full life - mother and grandmotherhood, activism, marriage, teaching, writing. When I think about becoming someone that I'd like to be, I think of Grace and the very full life she lived as an example.

This came in through one of the mailing lists to which I subscribe, from Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz:

Dear friends of Grace,

Everyone who loved Grace (many many) wants to do something now/soon, in addition to whatever formal memorials will be planned.

In this spirit of mourning and loving and carrying it on, we invite you to be part of a peace vigil in Grace's honor, in the Village where she lived and did political work for so many years. We chose the Jefferson Market Library--Grace and friends did peace vigils there, and it's around the corner from a garden that used to be the WomenÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s House of Detention, where Grace did some time.

So on Sept. 12th at 5:00 p.m., join us for an hour or so in front of

the Jefferson Market Library 425 Ave of the Americas (6th Ave.) & 10th St

Bring musical instruments (including pots and pans), anti-war signs, and signs that say GRACE PALEY PRESENTE or WE HONOR GRACE PALEY to pin to our backs or fronts. We might want to go into the garden (if it's open) and read some of GraceÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s writing to each other.

Please send out the word to all your lists, and maybe even make a few phone calls.

See you on Sept 12.-

yours,

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Esther Kaplan, Leslie Cagan, Kathy Engel,

Listen on Sunday Sept 9, noon- p.m.to Beyond the Pale, on WBAI 99.5FM for a program devoted to Grace.

================================ Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Grace Paley, z”l." 24 August 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/paley>.

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