In the Foremother ‘s Department, Grace Paley ranks right up there. For 60 years (she’s now 68), she has written poetry, fiction and essays, and for almost as long she has marched in protests and worked to change women’s lives through her teaching. Her novel Enormous Changes at the Last Minute appeared in 1974, and Later the Same Day (1985), Little Disturbances of Man (1985), and A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women (1989) followed. The following pieces are excerpted from Long Walks and Intimate Talks, a collection of short pieces illustrated by Vera Williams [Feminist Press, 1991]. Paley is now working on a collection of essays.
“I’m sort of a continuous person, ” Paley said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve been a peace activist since childhood. The last seven years I’ve gotten reinvolved with Jewish concerns, with peace activism as a Jew and a woman, with the Israeli women’s peace movement. Those women are so damn brave. “
“I’m particularly concerned with women’s issues. Women’s lives seem worse now. And while I’m not an organizer, I worked on the first ecofeminist conference in 1979. I now mostly do local stuff in Vermont, where I live—meetings on choice, for instance. “
“For me, working with people is a social habit.”
A man came into my father’s workplace about eighty years ago. He held a gun and asked my father to hand over the shop’s money. He was my father’s brother. My father said “Why don’t you ask me at home?” He answered, “Because I want your boss” money not the family’s.”
My father was 21 or 22. my uncle about 19. My father told me this story once. Most family stories are told many times.
One day my cousin Lenny and I were talking about the family. I wondered if he knew more about our uncle who had been taken from home, arrested in the Palmer Red raids of the early 2()”s and deported within the year to Russia, probably Vladivostok.
My cousin’s mother, my aunt, the oldest sister took me aside and asked, “Why did you tell him this story? You don’t even know what really happened. Let me tell you something. He was a wonderful boy our Grisha. You’re so crazy about your father: but if you had known Grisha, with your crazy ideas you would have loved him much more. He was the one you would have loved.”
Faith had just returned from Puerto Rico. She had attended a conference on The Bilingual Child and Public Education. She was an active worker in the PTA and had been sent by the local school board.
The neighborhood newspaper, always longing for community news, wanted to interview her. The young reporter made a couple of remarks, then asked a general question. “Mrs. Asbury, I understand you talked with many people and visited schools and clinics as part of the work of this conference. What did you think of Puerto Rico?”
Luckily she had been forming and reforming some sentences on the plane. She was able to deliver them— awkward but whole. “I think: first, around 1900 we stole their language from the people. The U.S. commissioners decided the Puerto Ricans should be educated in English—just the way the French did with the Vietnamese. Then, around the time the schools and the children were freed finally into their native Spanish, our cities needed new cheap labor, and the people were stolen from their language. That’s what I think.”
“May I quote you?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Faith, feeling like the great traveler. “Quote me.”
In the evening, she persuaded her son Richard to accompany her. They visited her parents, who lived in the Home for the Golden Ages, an institution full of small apartments for the intact, and dormitories for those unable to care for themselves. She told her parents that she had been interviewed and would soon be quoted. Her mother went next door immediately to inform a neighbor.
“I hope you didn’t make a fool of yourself,” her father said nervously.
“She handles herself pretty well lately,” said Richard.
“Don’t worry Grandpa. I worry sometimes myself,” he said courteously. His grandfather looked at him and nearly fainted with love, “He looks wonderful, this boy,” he said. “I like his hair long.”
“I do too,” said Faith’s mother, returning with her friend Mrs. Harrison. “I told her you would be in the paper. She wanted to meet you.”
“Oh Ma, it’s just a little neighborhood paper.”
“All right, my dream,” her mother said. “You took a trip. You went to a different place. Tell us something.”
“Well, okay.” said Faith. “First, it’s very beautiful. Very green and mountainous and you know, an island. They call it Daughter of the Sun and Sea. They can grow anything— oranges, bananas, beans, tomatoes, avocados—anything— people have chickens—but you know I went into a supermarket and the eggs are all stamped U.S.A.!”
Mrs. Harrison said, “They’re poor people, I suppose. We send them eggs? It’s wonderful. That’s the good old U.S. of A. for you.”
“Wonderful. . .” said Richard. “Wonderful? Don’t you people understand anything?”
“What a temper!” said his grandfather, full of admiration. “What Richard means Mrs. Harrison: We don’t give them. We sell them. They got to buy the eggs. They quit doing all that agriculture themselves.”
“Sure, we even send them rice from California,” said Faith, “—which they could also grow.”
“They should do it if they can,” said Mrs. Harrison. “But the tropics.. .people get very lackadaisical, I suppose.”
“You suppose,” said Richard. He stood up and looked at the door.
“Calm down,” said Faith. “Let me explain it a little. You know, when I visited one if the junior highs, I went into the kitchen—first of all I must say the school was beautiful—on a hill, a campus really. In the kitchen, I met these women very familiar to me, Puerto Rican women, after all, I know them from the PTA. And it turned out that a few, more than a few, had been in the States, worked in New York, it was too hard. On Rivington Street as a matter of fact….”
“You’re supposed to be explaining something,” said Richard.
“I don’t happen to have your machine-gun style, Richard, so just shut up! Where was I? The women. The women were school kitchen aides and they had these enormous bags of rice from California on the table and they were taking all sorts of little bugs and worms out of the rice.”
“You see,” said Richard, who couldn’t keep quite another minute, “you see they not only squeeze the local people out with cheap U.S.A. prices but they send them junk. They do that all over. That’s what it means to be a colony, you get junk. You’re poor. You gotta take it. Junky rice, inflammable clothes, you could grow oranges but can’t afford it. It comes cheaper from three thousand miles away even including the oil. You want to know a little fact. Little Puerto Rico was our fifth biggest market. A fact.”
“He’s right,” said Faith, “it’s not such a surprising idea—it happens right here. People are poor but they think they’re rich. They own a houseful of plastic and tin.”
“And who needs it?” asked Mrs. Harrison, who still refused to argue. “Garbage! But the president just said they could become a state.” “A state! What’s so great about becoming a state? They already have the honor of having more dead and wounded guys from the last war, percentagewise. And look at Maine—they’re giving all the shoe business to Korea. Maine’s a colony,
Vermont’s a colony. A state! Big deal. Thank you U.S.A.”
“He does have a wonderful temper,” said Mrs. Harrison.
“He was once like that,” said his grandmother, poking her husband in the ribs.
“And what about you? Once upon a time, I remember,” he said smiling. “Once on the boardwalk, she socked a cop who grabbed our boy for some foolishness.”
This finished everything for Richard. “He was once like that. You were once. No wonder the world’s in this condition.”
“Once!” he shouted, and tore out of the apartment as though “Once ” were catching, a contagious disease which might afflict his revolutionary limbs forever, and set the muscles of his face in an ineradicable smile.
My husband’s mother lived in Florida on the sandy shore of a small lake in the middle of an orange grove that looked something like a child’s painting, based in the color of sand with an occasional spear of green green grass bending this way and that. She was dying and wanted to ask a couple of questions about life. We could speak to her only at lunch— briefly—and later at supper. She didn’t eat much but it was the hour of her little strength and she offered it to us.
One evening at supper she asked me about Women’s Lib. She and her best friend (also very sick) had been talking about it. She said she thought I might know something about it. What was it like? Did it mean there would be women lawyers?
Would they work for women?
Oh surely, I said.
Would women get paid the same?
Was that the idea?
One of them, I answered. Equal pay at least.
Would women be free of men bossing them around?
Hopefully, I said.
Though it might take the longest amount of time since it would involve lots of changes in men.
Oh they won’t like that a bit, she said. Would people love their daughters then as much as their sons?
Maybe more, I said. Not fair again, she said slyly.
But that wasn’t all, I said. Most of the Women’s Libbers I knew really didn’t want to have a piece of the men’s pie.
They thought that pie was kind of poisonous, toxic, really full of weapons, poison gases, all kinds of mean junk we didn’t even want a slice of.
She was tired. That’s a lot she said. Then she went upstairs to sleep.
In the morning she surprised us. She came down for breakfast. I couldn’t sleep she said. I was up all night thinking of what you said. You know she said, there isn’t a thing I’ve done in my life that I haven’t done for some man. Dress up or go out or take a job or quit it or go home or leave. Or even be quite or say something nice, things like that. You know I was up all night thinking about you and especially those young women. I couldn’t stop thinking about what wonderful lives they’re going to have.
People in My Family
In my family
people who are 82 are very different
from people who are 92
The 82-year old people grew up
the year was 1914
This is what they knew World War I
War World War War
That’s why when they speak to the grandchild
they say poor little one
The 92-year old people grew up
The year was 1905
They went to prison
They went into exile
They said ah soon
That’s why when they speak to the grandchild
they say first there will be revolution
then there will be revolution then once more
then the earth itself will turn and turn
and cry out Oh I have been made sick
then you my little bud
will flower and save it.