For My Daughter
by Grace Paley
I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day I wanted to adjure
commend admonish saying don’t
do that of course wonderful try
I wanted to help her grow old I wanted
to say last words the words famous
for final enlightenment I wanted
to say them now in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water
I wanted to explain tiredness is
expected it is even appropriate
at the end of the day
What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.
When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:
Don’t sped all your money on coffees.
Get a job.
Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.
What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.
Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.
I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.
This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.
But she keeps her mouth shut.
The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.
Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.
Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.
I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.
If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:
–I’ve got your back, always–
Or to use a few of Paley’s words,
–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.
She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.
She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.
She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.
Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.
You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.