Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley: Mother, Writer, Activist, Z”L

When I heard today that Grace Paley had died, I knew I had to put aside the blog post I had begun and dedicate my first post here to her memory.

Paley is one of my favorite writers. Born in 1922 in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, she began writing short stories as a young mother and community activist in the 1950s. Hearing someone read a story on Jewish themes gave her permission to write from her own life experience, so she put mothers and children at the center of her stories and depicted the playground as the place where the stuff of life happens.

As a historian, I’m amazed at how Paley’s stories, which focus on women’s lives and insist on the value of conversation and of attention to local issues, presaged the feminist slogan of the late 1960s that “the personal is political.” As a woman and a mother, I appreciate how she captured the ways that the mundane, brief moments in our daily lives -- a walk with a friend, moms watching kids in the park -- are often the richest, most important interactions, containing everything we need to know about people and the world.

Motherhood led Paley to activism on urban neighborhood issues, peace issues, and human rights. In her writing, she makes no distinction between the work of mothering and the work of repairing the world – they are part and parcel of the same project.

I’ll close with an excerpt from the dedication of her "Collected Stories":

“It seems right to dedicate this collection to my friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade… we talked and talked for nearly forty years. Then she died. Three days before that, she said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is – how are we to live our lives?”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this--I had overlooked that obit today. I love Paley's collection "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" for the sense that we're simply along for the ride.

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