Page 23 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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BAUMGARTEN / URBAN FAILURES
17
a past tense narra tion , calling us to participate in the personal
optim ism o f the historical experience, Paley’s prose reveals the
eterna l moment o f the imm igrant’s agony. “My m o ther and
fa th e r came from a small town in Poland. They had th ree sons.
My fa ther decided to go to America, to 1. stay out o f the army, 2.
stay ou t o f jail, 3. save his children from everyday wars and o rd i­
nary pogroms. He was helped by the savings o f parents, uncles,
g randm o thers and set o ff like hund reds o f thousands of others in
tha t year. In America, New York City, he lived a hard but hopeful
life. Sometimes he walked on Delancey Street. Sometimes like a
bachelor he went to the thea ter on Second Avenue. Mostly he pu t
his money away for the day he could bring his wife and sons to this
place.” The impact this story makes depends upon the history
central to Bellow’s work. Coming after Bellow’s, working for dif­
feren t ends, in the terms o f literary history it depends upon his.
“Meanwhile in Poland famine struck. Not hunger which all
Americans suffer six, seven times a day bu t Famine, which tells
the body to consume itself. First the fat, then the meat, the
muscle, then the blood. Famine ate up the bodies o f the little boys
pretty quickly. My fa ther met my mo ther at the boat. He looked at
h er face, her hands. T h e re was no baby in he r arms, no children
d ragg ing at her skirt. She was not wearing h er hair in two long
black braids. T he re was a kerchief over a dark wiry wig. She had
shaved her head, like a backward O rthodox bride, though they
had been serious advanced socialists like most o f the youth of
the ir town. He took her by the hand and b rough t her home. They
never went anywhere alone, except to work or the grocer’s. They
held each o the r’s hand when they sat down at the table, even at
breakfast. Sometimes he patted her hand , sometimes she patted
his. He read the pape r to her every n igh t.” T he conclusion o f the
story takes place in the lyric moment o f the presen t fense. It func­
tions as an epiphany, crystallizing the costs and benefits o f Jewish
imm igrant life into a shimmering image: “They are sitting at the
edge o f their chairs. He’s leaning forward read ing to her in that
old bulb light. Sometimes she smiles ju s t a little. T hen he puts the
pape r down and takes both her hands in his as though they
needed warmth. He continues to read. Ju s t beyond the table and
the ir heads, there is the darkness o f the kitchen, the bedroom , the
din ing room, the shadowy darkness where as a child I ate my
supper, did my homework and went to bed .”12
12 Grace Paley,
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,
New York: Laurel, 1975, p.
173, pp. 180-181.