In Memoriam of Grace Paley
By: Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz
Grace Gutseit (later changed to Goodside) was born in the Bronx in 1922. She always wrote, but her first book was published almost by chance (mother of her child's playmate showed a story to editor-husband). Her work was adored, and though publication and all sorts of honors came to her, she always sounded uniquely like herself.
In writing as in activism she was brave. In Trarist Russia her uncle had been shot out in front with a flag. "Don't carry the flag," they had warned Grace, but she always did. She grew up a fierce socialist who discovered non-violence, a chutzpahdik visionary for more than 50 years, a steadfast feminist against militarism, against racism, working in Greenwich Village with neighborhood peace groups or traveling to Hanoi, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Isral/Palestine - she was perhaps the original "think globally act locally" person.
I first read Grace Paley's work during that explosive period of second wave feminism. She had been there but I had not known to look for her, and then the title of her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man put me off. (Man?) I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, trying to unlearn my Brooklyn Jewish accent - and there was that language in a book! But what was happening? Plot? Structure? Ring form? As far as I could tell, voice was everything. Thus I and a whole cohort of New York Jewish women were given permission to speak not in Grace's voice, but in our own.
She was inspiring as a writer because of her precision, her courage, her kindnesss. Has anyone ever been so herself? At a time when it wasn't done, Grace took seriously in her writing and her politics, the lives of women. Thus we have three thin books of stories, a collection of poems, and some essays. In "The Poet's Occasional Alternative", the poet explains why there wasn't more, choosing to make a pie instead of a poem.
At the 25th anniversary celebrating the end of the Vietnam was, Grace read a piece caled "Inherit the War". I asked her to send me a copy, and a few weeks later, there it was, an envelope addressed in her large, generous hand. "It's up to you, kiddo," she would say.
Here it is:
A Story by Grace Paley, "Inherit the War"
The father had been preparing a war for his son's birthday. He started long ago. You have to, you know. People who decide on a war and expect it to happen the minute or week or month they want it to are often disappointed. You also cannot do it alone. The father has a few friends from his war who are willing to help out. They have sons too. There are quite simple ways to begin - probably in childhood. For instance, help the boy develop an easy dislike for your neighbor's daughter. Mild prejudice will then rest contentedly in his little breast. As time goes on, it can appear as nothing worse than sleepy contempt for their daughter.
The father remembers his war, how long it took for his father to get it right. He was almost too old. (The father and his friends are now called the Great Generation. This isn't exactly fair. Theirfather had fought in an equally famous way and luckily had survived to provide a war for the father and his friends.)
This father does need more preparation, and quickly. His son is growing beautifully, but he's reading too much. Some of his ideas seem to come from leftish media - the schools are also bad, even treacherous.
But he's sure, the father is sure that he can find the old newspapers that he's kept of the right pages of the history book, which are clever about enumerating insults to our national soul and natural hegemony. The recollection of historial insult is important in the life of great nations, as well as their stunning victories.
The father would like his son to be an airman. Of course anxiety about civilian deaths - women and children - always undercuts the enthusiasm of sentimental citizens and tender-hearted boys.
He's talked to many other fathers. They're nearly ready. They've begun their letters to newspapers, their articles on the wimps in Congress and the administration. Most important, they've selected the enemy and are very clear about it.
He has only one year left - before his son's eighteenth birthday. His son is not unaware of what is coming. He has that boyish excitement, that intensifying patriotism - his own war at last.