The Gifts of Grace Paley

Today, August 22nd, is the anniversary of the death of my beloved writing mentor, Grace Paley. The arrival of this sad date always reminds me of when I—quite unexpectedly—cooked a meal for Grace, just weeks before her death.

It was early July of 2007. At the time, I was living in Portugal, but I’d flown to the US—my first time back home in nearly a year—in order to attend the summer writing residency at Vermont College and teach a graduate workshop (The following five paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter “Sip by Sip,” in my book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, University of Chicago Press, 2009).

While [at the residency] an old friend, the poet Jean Valentine, told me she’d heard that Grace had taken a bad turn in a fight against cancer. Grace lived only thirty miles away, so Jean and I drove a rental car through Vermont’s lush green summer landscape to visit her, and after the last stretch of a narrow road cutting through a field or two and then a stand of thick overhanging trees, we came to her front yard, where she sat beside a table, waiting for us.

She looked like an older version of the Grace I’d always known, a topknot of now white hair crowning her head. After careful hugs of greeting, Jean and I joined Grace, her husband Bob and their stunning daily view: great lazy rolls of cloud that crossed a blue sky and cast shadows on the hills below. Though she could forget something just five minutes in passing, Grace still had her clear-eyed humor, sharp and gentle at the same time. She landed some tough ones on Bob, but he joked off the rough edges and she seemed to expect this, because it was all an improvised show of a crusty, loving couple.

We skimmed along on friendly chitchat, nothing approaching what I was too embarrassed to say, that Grace, by the example of her patient teaching, the clarity and heart of her writing, even a single sentence from one of her stories—“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life”—had given me a way to live my own life, given me a path I’d tried, however imperfectly, to follow.

Grace invited us to stay for dinner, and Jean and I exchanged alarmed glances—we hadn’t come to impose. But Bob led me to the family garden, where we gathered greens for whatever would become dinner. He and I carried it all to the kitchen while Jean kept company with Grace. Bob found a box of pasta, I chopped vegetables, then poked around in the refrigerator for ingredients that might work together with spaghetti sauce. Not much there, and a good proportion of that was too old to use—this was the kitchen of a family under siege. When Grace called Bob to the front yard, he turned to me and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take over.” Suddenly there I stood, alone in the kitchen, with two pans simmering. Somehow, step by tiny step I had been given this opportunity to offer my mentor a meal. The spaghetti sauce now seemed unworthy, so I searched the cabinets and scoured through the refrigerator once again, hoping for any spice or condiment that might help match the depth of my gratitude.

I steamed the greens and then shaped them into a kind of loaf, grilled some garlic bread, simmered the sauce until it poured thick over the steaming spaghetti, and I called everyone in to the table I’d just set. Bob scarfed down his portion with exaggerated praise—glad, I guessed, to eat a meal he hadn’t prepared himself, though more likely he was trying to encourage Grace, her appetite hijacked by cancer. When Jean joined in with compliments intended as gentle nudging, Grace managed a bite or two, and I wondered if she could taste what my meal was trying to say.

*

The photo that appears at the top of this post is from Grace’s last days, sitting on a chair in her study, beside her a fantastically cluttered pile of books. But the photo below is the way I remember her best, when I worked under Grace as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, from 1970 to 1973.

Grace was a careful reader of her students’ work, but her most valuable comments came from her attention to what I guess I’d call the “soul” of any given short story. Of course she was interested in the words—she herself was a great stylist of the English language—but she was also attentive to what fueled those words. She encouraged us—quietly, not didactically—to discover the psychological, artistic and social energy behind a story, what she called “the story behind the story.” Guided by Grace, nurturing an awareness of the invisible muscle behind my writing has been a lifelong gift.

Grace, in spite of the depth and power of her writing, was also as plain spoken and humble as could be, the exact opposite of the literary chest thumping of Norman Mailer and his ilk. Her demeanor served as a powerful example to my young and callow and ambitious self. At the time, Grace was not yet famous—her second book of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, still balanced on the cusp of publication. I remember when I and a couple of other lucky students were sitting in her office (probably there for no good reason other than to bask in her presence) and she read us one of her masterpieces, “A Conversation with My Father.” She was revising the story in anticipation of publication, still unsure if it was really ready to go, and she asked us what we thought. As I remember, we had little to offer other than stunned and admiring silence, and I suppose that was as effective as any comment.

Grace Paley influenced not only my writing but my teaching. She had been one of the co-founders of Teachers and Writers Collaborative (something I didn’t know until recently!), a literary outreach organization for elementary and secondary school students, where I attempted my first teaching while a creative writing graduate student at City College in New York.

But Grace taught me another valuable lesson about teaching, one perhaps that she wouldn’t have realized at the time. She once predicted something about my writing and my future writing life, a simple comment that I have never forgotten and that I won’t share here. But her words, maybe spoken casually, kept me going during those always inevitable times when I struggled with my writing, when I felt lost and alone in what I was trying to express. Grace’s words became so important to me that I came to realize the power a mentor’s words can have on a student. As a teacher for over forty years, I have tried to ensure that my words would heal and not haunt a student whenever they might enter times of trouble in their writing life.

So thank you, Grace, wherever you might be, for all your gifts—gifts far greater than any ad hoc spaghetti dinner could ever have repaid.

***

More about Grace Paley:

“The Hidden Second Story”

“What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know”

 

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