Grace Paley died today. Josh called me from work to tell me the news and his voice was cracking as he said it. It was like a favourite great aunt who had always been at Thanksgiving dinner was suddenly gone.
I met her once when we were trying to conceive. I went to a reading where she read the essay "Traveling". It begins with her mother and sister taking a bus from New York to Virginia in 1927. When the bus got to D.C., every African-American got up and moved to the back of the bus. Paley's mother and sister were sitting in the back and when the driver asked them to move to the front of the bus, her mother refused. She refused three times and remained in the back of the bus until they got to Richmond.
The story switches to Paley's ride from New York to Miami Beach in 1943. Paley is sitting in the last seat in the white section. An African-American woman gets on the bus, holding a sleeping child. All of the white men in the white section let this woman and child stand. Paley offers the woman her seat but the woman demurs. Finally, Paley tells her that she'll hold the baby. And the woman, from sheer exhaustion, gives Paley her child and continues to stand next to her.
Paley read this story when we were a few months into starting treatments. And I couldn't breathe when she talked about holding this child. "I liked holding him, aligning him along my twenty-year-old young woman's shape. I thought ahead to that holding, that breathing together that would happen in my life if this war would ever end."
As she held the baby, one of the white men leans forward and says, "Lady, I wouldn't of touched that thing with a meat hook."
And I started sobbing, not just from disgust, but from this idea that I didn't know how I could live in a world where someone couldn't appreciate a child. Where I wanted to parent so badly and would have done anything to hold any child. And this man would speak about that child like that. And I can't put this well into words tonight, but I believe many of you probably understand.
Grace Paley stared at the man. Without breaking eye contact, she held the boy closer and kissed the top of his head.
Fifty years later, in 1993, she remembers this story as she holds her grandson. She writes: "But [now] the child that I'm holding, his little face as he turns toward me, is the brown face of my own grandson, my daughter's boy, the open mouth of the sleeper, the full lips, the thick little body of a child who runs wildly from one end of the yard to the other..." When she remembers this story, she tells it to her siblings. This African-American boy that she held, the one who made her dream about having her own children, strongly resembles her daughter's son so many years later. She writes: "How it happened on just such a journey, when I was still quite young, that I first knew my grandson, first held him close, but could protect him for only about twenty minutes fifty years ago."
After the reading, I went to meet her. And when I got there, I just stood in front of her, trying to fight back tears from having all of these worlds collide--one of the greatest story writers of all time, standing back where I got my MFA, and her story about when she started dreaming about having her own children, and my own heart knowing how hard it was for me to have a child and wondering if my dream child would ever get there.
I couldn't say anything. I just stood there and finally said, "you mean so much to me."
And she just hugged me. She gave me the longest hug and squeezed me so tightly. It felt like I had always known her. She let me hug her until I was ready to let go.
Thank you, Grace Paley, for being you. For being such an incredible writer. And compassionate woman. And for putting into action what other people only think about putting into words. Thank you for hugging me on that day. Rest easy.