Remembrance of Grace Paley

Grace Paley goes back for me to my earliest days in theatre and the whole downtown scene, first through the War Resisters' League, which is, as she described herself, a group of 'combative pacifists and cooperative anarchists." We met in maybe, 1972, through draft counseling, tax refusal, demonstrations, artsy-political parties and street theatre and funky galleries and shows at LaMama. She was one of those rare people who could make you feel that you were in exactly the right place, doing the best possible thing -- a great quality in an organizer. And then I discovered her writing, and after that I was shy with her for a while because I was so in awe. I wanted to talk like she wrote. She was a good hater too, not venomous, but unequivocal. One time, sitting in her kitchen on 11th St, drinking tea, I mentioned someone we knew in common. He had been a close friend in high school, and was now a colleague of hers at Sarah Lawrence. And she just exploded, 'Oh, he's a phony, I can't stand him!' Something like that, but the word phony was definitely there, and backed by real rage. And I was shocked; and scared she would dislike me because I had been friends with this person. But she sensed that and quickly told me that we can't be responsible for what our childhood friends turn into, and sometimes we remain friends with people just because we've known them so long, and if we met them now, we would never be friends with them. I lived for decades in a building on 19th St., and one of my neighbors was a woman who had been friends with Grace forever. She was just like the women in her stories. In fact, she was the one who had a son who was a drug addict. If you remember the story, the mother becomes a junkie too, so her son and his junkie friends can feel at home in her house and be safer. Well, it wasn't quite like that, but the son lived at home and did his drugs and the mom went to work at the library or a school, I can't remember. And we would hear him stamping and shouting in his druggy madness and sometimes see him through the courtyard window, two floors below. And eventually he died, and she kept going to work. It wasn't quite like Grace's story, their story, but it totally could have been, and that woman and her sad son were ten times realer to me because of Grace's story. I adapted one of her stories into a wonderful little play with NYU students, and watching them fall in love with her language and embody these goofy people, just made me love her even more. Saw her last at the JFREJ benefit last year. She was so thin and frail, but just as funny and warm and welcoming as ever. Oh, Grace, I have had decades of practice in missing you, because I never ever had enough time with you, so this should be easier. But it doesn't help. Now it's never, never, never, never, never time, and I don't want to believe it.

© 2017 Kolot Chayeinu | Voices of Our Lives