From March ’08 Spotlight: Grace Paley, one of the most respected American short story writers of the 20th century, died last August at the age of 84. On February 21, I attended a tribute to Paley at the Women and Children First bookstore in Andersonville organized by Chicago writer Sandi Wisenberg. (Wisenberg is best-known for Holocaust Girls: History, Memory, and Other Obsessions first published in 2002). Also on hand were Rosellen Brown, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Kathy Kelly, Peggy Shinner, Sharon Solwitz, and Christina Villasenor, as well as Paley’s stepdaughter, Eliza Nichols. (Nichols is the new dean of fine and performing arts at Columbia College Chicago.)
“Short, white-haired, plainspoken Grace Paley is the patron saint—or the feminist, pacifist, leftist, Jewish matron saint—of those of us who believe in combining the artistic and the activist life,” Wisenberg wrote in an interview she did for The Reader in 1999 when Paley came to Chicago to do a program at the School of the Art Institute. “When I read her stories, her rhythm makes mine stronger; the voice in my head grows stronger even though I came a generation after her and didn’t grow up with Yiddish like she did,” Wisenberg told me last month when I called her for an update.
To me Paley’s “second generation” voice is perfectly captured in these lines from Faith in a Tree (1967), one of her most famous and most-clearly autobiographical stories: “What was my mother trying to prove? That I was independent? That she wasn’t the sort to hang on? That in the sensible, socialist, Zionist world of the future, she wouldn’t cry at my wedding? ‘You’re an American child. Free. Independent.’ Now what does that mean?” The question is just as poignant for women today.