Gum, Grit, and Storytelling

She chewed gum while lecturing. It was a habit she picked up once when, while presenting her thoughts in front of an audience, the words got stuck in her throat. Chewing gum induced salivation and let the words flow once again.

Grace Paley (1922-2007), like Jennifer Lopez, was from the Bronx. But her parents were not. They were Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who, along with other necessities, had packed their traditions along with everything else. But this was a problem for Grace and many other immigrant offspring. So Grace let her stories do the talking for her to expose the difficulties first generation Americans had– learn how to balance cultural traditions imposed upon them by their immigrant parents while simultaneously trying to integrate with the country they were actually living in. 

Grace was both a high school and a college dropout (she took a course with the British poet W. H. Auden at Hunter College). Married at 19 to a film camera man, Grace had two children and spent more time on the playground with the kids than at her desk writing. A typical story for so many women. Nevertheless, she was also a political activist focused on the ban of nuclear weapons and equal rights for women.

Not discouraged by the many rejections she initially received from editors, Grace used her semi-autobiographical character, Faith Darwin, to help tell her own story. And those of others.

Grace looked at life as if it were this big piece of fabric and all she had to do was simply cut out a part that interested her and then fabricate a story around it. Many of the stories were about a world of women unhappy in their domestic roles and of immigrants crowded into tenements. One such story is “Goodbye and Good Luck”. The story opens with Rose Lieber telling her niece, Lillie, about her past. Rose was an overweight ticket seller at the Russian Art Theater where she met Volodya Vlashkin, an almost famous actor known as the Valentino of Second Avenue. Rose falls in love with Vlashkin and decides to move in with him. Her mother, outraged, protests but Rose insists it’s her life to which her mother responds: “you, a nothing, a rotten hole in a piece of cheese, are you telling me what life is?”

Then Rose learns, casually, that the love of her life is married with kids. Not wanting to be a home wreaker, she leaves Vlashkin and goes back to live with her mother.

For the next several years, relatives try their hand at matchmaking but Rose isn’t interested. She just plods through life until one day, unexpectedly, Vlashkin shows up at her apartment. He says his wife has left him and now he can be with her forever. So Rose tells Vlashkin that for years, while he was married, she was his lover asking for nothing in return. But now that he is free, he should be ashamed of himself if doesn’t show her the respect she merits by marrying her.

Rose had never been against marriage. She just didn’t want to wind up like her own mom who married a man she didn’t love. So, compared to her mother, Rose is the winner as she loves Vlashkin and is going to marry him for that reason. Finally dressed for her wedding day, Rose asks her niece to wish her a long and happy life. And to “Hug Mama, tell her from Aunt Rose, goodbye and good luck.”

Grace Paley didn’t produce a massive body of work as she was too busy raising kids and being politically involved. She participated in many anti-war and anti-nuke demonstrations and was even arrested for her participation. Before her breast cancer related death, Grace said her dream for her grandchildren was that they could live in “a world without militarism and racism and greed—and where w4omen don’t have to fight for their place in the world.”

Epilogue: “Art is too long, and life is too short.” Grace


About Art for Housewives

The Storyteller....
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