Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and also had an apartment in Manhattan . . . .
Obituary Page, New York Times
What was she like? What can I tell you? She was a nice person. Refined but no pushover. Ladylike, but sharp on crooks. A writer. Also a "social activist," I see by the Times. Social activist, shmocial activist. A Mother Teresa she wasn't, not even a Dorothy Day. She didn't have enough inner doubt to be a saint.
Believe me, if she hadn't been such a Social Activist, she would have been a better writer in her old age. Listen to what I'm telling you: There's realism, then there's socialist realism. I'm no writer, but that much I know.
Grace Paley a social activist? She was more a street-cornernik. You know, the kind of nice lady who hands out pamphlets on Sixth Avenue down in the Village when she isn't teaching classes at Sarah Lawrence. Her causes? Women's lib, nuclear disarmament, down with the capitalists, whatever you got. She kept up with the times.
She had lots of irons in the fire, that lady. Also, I see by the paper, a home in Vermont and an apartment in Manhattan. That's America for you a rotten warmongering racist sexist society where they make you keep up two houses. It's tough to be a social activist.
So what were her politics? Not easy to describe. She was a kind of combative pacifist, a cooperative anarchist. She'd tell you so herself. She had a sense of humor. Very rare among social activists, believe me. To me, she was just your typical Henry Wallace Progressive. It was like 1948 all the time with her. A nice person, you understand, not angry, and you couldn't ask for a better friend. A good mother and ex-wife. She had a husband or two, children, the whole catastrophe. She knew what life was, let me tell you.
But believe me are you listening? Then why are you looking over my shoulder? You think maybe somebody more interesting will come along? You should be so lucky. You asked a question, young man, I'm answering. Open your ears. You could at least do me the courtesy.
So where was I? Oh, yes, her politics. Listen, if you knew Grace's mama and papa, you would understand. Both were thrown out of Russia by the Tsar whether because they were socialists or Jews or freethinkers or all of the above, I don't know. Who needed a reason? In those days, they just used to exile us, now they kill us. That's what you call Progress. Her father was sent to Siberia, then had to leave for America in something like 1906. Some punishment.
Anyway, you can imagine the conversations in the house where little Gracie grew up. It must have been like being raised in the middle of an anarchists' convention. It's like the paper said: "Grace's childhood was noisy and warm, and always there was glorious argument. The Communists hollered at the Socialists, the Socialists hollered at the Zionists, and everybody hollered at the anarchists." Who, of course, hollered back. Where there's no religion, you got to have other things to argue about.
What things? Art, literature, politics which is another form of religion with some people. But believe me are you listening? a Bella Abzug she wasn't. She had real talent. Not as a social activist, thank G-d, but as a writer.
Could she tell a story. And you know what her secret was? She wasn't so much a storyteller as a story hearer. She was a first-class listener. That was the secret of her success.
You could tell she knew how to listen, especially to the voices from her childhood. The voices most of us forget, put behind us, think we're supposed to grow out of, be better than. Who needs 'em, right? It's America, right? Social activism isn't the name of the game here but social mobility. You got to know where she was coming from to understand where she went and then came back to.
No, she didn't start out as a writer. She was going to be a poet. With a capital P yet. Who wasn't going to be a poet back then, when we were all at Hunter? Or maybe at the New School. And she stayed a poet, but not one you might care to read. Poets we got. More storytellers we could use.
So, to make a long story shorter, one day she gets sick it must have been in the 1950s but not so sick she can't type when the kids are at school and out of her hair, and she sits down to write a story, "Goodbye and Good Luck." And she was off. Like a racehorse.
You read the first few lines, and she's got you. It's like listening to a real heart-to-heart between an aunt and a niece:
"I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn't no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don't be surprised change is a fact of G-d. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama … waits in a spotless kitchen and thinks poor Rosie. Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.''
Only you'll never get the real flavor of her words if you just read it. You got to read it out loud. And hear it. You listening to me? What kind of writer was she? She was a Yiddish writer only in English.
It's like the paper said, in first-class English, every word sharp like a jewel: ". . . her stories are marked by their minute attention to language, with its tonal rise and fall, hairpin rhetorical reversals and capacity for delicious hyperbolic understatement." In short, she wrote in Yiddish whatever language she was using at the time.
What an ear for hearing she had! You want to know what kind of writer she was? Go and read. Aloud. Then you'll understand.
Me? I'm going to have myself a nice cup tea and maybe a blintz with a gentleman admirer at the dairy restaurant on Delancey, the one that isn't Ratner's. More tea, believe me, I don't need. I'm already a samovar. But a nice gentleman who isn't fresh, and knows how to treat a lady, not like your generation, that would be nice.
So, please, you should excuse me. I don't want to keep him waiting too long, just long enough, if you know what I mean. Enough already with Grace Paley, may she rest in peace. Life goes on. As for you, Mister Big-Shot Newspaperman, you could learn a lot from her when it comes to listening. Goodbye and good luck.