Friday, August 24, 2007

In Memoriam, Grace Paley (1922 – 2007)

It was announced today that Grace Paley, one of this country’s greatest writers and most dedicated social activists, died on Wednesday at the age of 84. Paley was a beloved hero. To me, she was the epitome of true womanhood, beautiful without the artifice of glamour and unashamedly passionate. She was politically savvy and courageous, profoundly Jewish without a fear-based kind of faith, and the quintessential New York intellectual, unstudied yet immediately distinctive.

I met her once when I was 20-something and my mother (who introduced me to her work) and I went to hear her read at the 92nd Street Y. She was completely present, a woman at ease in her own skin, and therefore, not surprisingly, mild mannered and soft spoken. I mustered all my courage to introduce myself after the reading. She was very sweet and took my hand in both of hers. Like a schmuck, I hadn’t thought to bring one of her books to autograph. Opportunity lost.

Paley’s language was clean and plain yet remarkably evocative. She made New York’s Lower East Side almost holographically vivid, documenting a time and place of what the New York Times obituary spot-on called “secular Yiddishkeit,” flavored with the scents and sensibilities of the Italians, blacks and Puerto Ricans in her midst. Her short stories explored a women’s world of little money, broken hearts and promises, guerilla motherhood, and the myriad complexities of coping with men. And as an activist, she was always on the old left side of civil justice, human rights and war resistance.

As a Spiritualist, I believe that the essence of Grace Paley will continue on some other plane of existence that I don’t pretend to comprehend. But as one of the many living left behind, I mourn the loss of this strong, true, exquisite voice. I send my deepest sympathies to her husband and family, and empathetic greetings to her friends and colleagues, and my fellow readers. It feels a little dark right now, but we’ve all been blessed by the warmth of her light.

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