Tag Archives: Grace Paley

Happy birthday, dad

My father’s birthday is today. Some years ago, Grace Paley wrote a poem describing what her father was like when he was the same age as my father is now. I discovered that by changing a few words, and adding a few words, the poem applies pretty well to my own father (at least, before January 20 of this year):


My father said
          how will they get out of it
          they should be sorry they got in

My father says
          how will they get out
          Cheney Bush    the whole bunch
          they don’t know how

goddammit he says
          I’d give anything to see it
          they went in over their heads

he says
          greed    greed    time
          nothing is happening fast enough


What are the changed words, you ask? I’ll let you look up the poem yourself, in Paley’s book Leaning Forward (Penobscot, Maine: Granite Press, 1985), p. 69. Hint: Paley’s poem was written c. 1970; the political leaders of that time were more aware of their errors in judgment than are Cheney and Bush.

Grace Paley

Mother’s Day sermons can get pretty saccharin, so this year when I was looking for readings for Mother’s Day, I turned to Grace Paley. No one could write about motherhood with less sentimentality, or with more humanity, than Grace Paley. Nobody could write about people with such a depth of humanity. I love her stories. Nothing happens in them, but they sound like real life to me. The characters are people I know, and they do things I can imagine doing myself. I can’t think of any other short story writer whom I like as much.

She died on Wednesday, at age 84. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” If there were an afterlife (which she and I doubt very much), she would organize protests in the afterlife, just as her characters organize protests and political action in her stories….

A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the Board of Estimate Hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes, but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebbtide of our lower west side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh, how he loved our old moldy pot New York.

…The first mother stood up… when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities….

will someone please put a high fence up
around the children’s playground
they are playing a game and have only
one more year of childhood. won’t the city come…
to keep the bums and
the tramps out of the yard they are too
little now to have the old men … feeling their
knees … can’t the cardinal
keep all these creeps out

She bowed her head and stepped back modestly to allow the recitative for which all the women rose, wherever in the hearing room they happened to be. They said a lovely statement in chorus:

The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions….

from Grace Paley’s story “Politics”

The best way to remember Grace Paley would be to engage in that kind of cooperative creative political action, of a combatively pacifist nature.