A Conversation With My Father by Grace Paley
I love this story because there’s so much more to it than might appear at first reading. Actually, it’s two stories for the price of one.
Grace Paley once admitted that the only real person in her short stories was her father. I understand this only too well. My own father died when I was 12, and I once started a novel about his early life, so keen was I to bring him back to life. I would have loved to be able to have this kind of adult conversation with my father.
This story is about a conversation between a daughter and her 86-year-old father, who is dying. It’s also about how to write a story, and how to deal with a father’s imminent death. The father wants his daughter to write and accept a story with a tragic ending. She wants the ending to be open, to have the possibility for change. “Everyone,” she says, “deserves the open destiny of life.” He asks her to tell a story in a style he knows – Chekhov or de Maupassant. She says she’d like to try, but she can only tell it in her own relatively modern style. Her first version of the simple story her father demands is simple indeed. The woman across the street wants to be loved by her son so joins him in becoming a junkie, but cannot quit drugs when he eventually does, so he abandons her.
The narrator’s father is very unhappy with this tale. He wants more, and he knows exactly what’s needed. He wants to understand what the woman looks like, what her background is, how she comes to be living across the street, what her education is. “Start again,” he says, and the narrator does.
The revised story is a lesson in how to write, yet the writer takes no credit for it. She’s simply following her father’s instructions. This revised story can stand on its own, but the father still isn’t satisfied. If he were, the conversation would come to an end, and neither of them wants that. So he carries on criticizing. In this new story, there’s humor. The father doesn’t want humor – he wants redemption, and he wants his daughter to understand tragedy. She continues to avoid it.
The father wants to make his daughter come to terms with his imminent death. We, the readers, understand why she wants to keep his death at bay. But we wonder – does she realize that’s what she’s doing? Or does she really think it’s all about telling a tale? Grace Paley allows us to wonder.
You can read the story here:
To read an excerpt of Gabi’s short story, ‘The Rescue’ CLICK HERE.
‘The Rescue’ is now available in its entirety in Memoir, Vol.1 in iTunes Memoir Vol.1.