Saturday, August 25, 2007

Grace Paley (1922–2007)

Having been out of circulation this past week playing tour guide to a visiting nephew, I've only today heard of the death of Grace Paley on Tuesday. To many New Yorkers, she was not only a writer but also, as Thulani Davis remembers, "a sunny isle of sanity in a world gone mad with hasty, hardened greetings."

For several years almost two decades ago, when I lived in the Bronx, I spent weekends cat-sitting in an apartment on West 11th Street in Manhattan, and Ms. Paley was the always-friendly neighbor I'd see many Saturday mornings. (Maud Newton also recalls her "genuinely warm" accessibility--even in embarrassing circumstances.) Although I knew of her renown, I had never read her stories, so I had the oddly intimate experience of being introduced to her fiction by way of these personal encounters.

And I always found it difficult reconciling her easygoing vivaciousness with the woman whose famous political activism would endure to the end of her life—most recently at "a sit-in at Congressman Peter Welch's office" (where her 87-year-old husband Bob Nichols was arrested). In later years, after I'd moved to Manhattan myself, I would run into her at various marches or at political meetings in Greenwich Village, and I would finally understand that the neighborly Grace Paley was really no different from the activist Grace Paley. Her example taught many of us young firebrands that activism could be amicable and angry at the same time.