Our Grace

by Ariel Dougherty '69

Grace Paley was a giant, packed in a small frame. A world-famous writer, she taught Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence from 1966 to 1989, though I never studied with her. In the late 1960s, however, many of us were her students outside of class. Grace taught us conviction in our ideas and sparseness of words. She taught us commitment (“You sit down and you stay down,” she would say at a demonstration) and above all else, responsibility. She was a model of how we should live our lives.

With a “Hey, kiddo,” she would arrive at our rallies on campus, spur us on in our activism, and march alongside us in many a protest against the long war in Vietnam. We learned by her example.

So, in 1980, when I heard about her role in the Women’s Pentagon Action, I smiled knowingly. My own visit to the Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice in Seneca, New York, was on a different cycle from Grace’s. Hence, I missed the day she climbed the fence onto the army depot, grinned back at the crowd, and got arrested, yet again.

Grace was on a feminist listserv I joined some years back. She was already ill, no longer posting. Our group lauded Grace in her last months for her embodiment of the difficult triad of mother, artist, and activist.

The tidal wave of tributes was amazing after Grace died: she had touched so many lives. The eulogy by Robin Morgan, Grace’s editor, was thoroughly Grace. The deadline was imminent. Grace arrived with scraps of paper, phrases penciled here, everyday examples stretching there. She handed the pile to Robin for the editor to puzzle out, and was off to a demonstration.

After college, I lived just uptown from Grace. One day I wandered into a Greenwich Village bookstore. There was Grace, for some inexplicable reason being harangued by the shopkeeper, momentarily stunned by his tirade. I went up to her, put my arm around her shoulders, and gently escorted her outside. Once on the sidewalk she immediately returned to her cheery self. She gave me a bear hug. And off we went to other responsibilities in our lives.