Tomorrow, friends and admirers of the late poet Grace Paley will be celebrating her birthday – the longtime Vermont resident would have been 87. Vermont Edition is remembering Grace Paley with this archival recording of her story, "The Loudest Voice."
First published in 1959, the story is told in the voice of Shirley Abramowitz, a little Jewish girl in the 1930’s who is called upon to narrate her school’s Christmas play — a situation that prompts some pretty interesting conversations.
This is an archival recording of Grace Paley, reading her story, "The Loudest Voice."
The Loudest Voice
There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. "Mrs. Abramowitz," he says, "people should not be afraid of their children."
"Ah, Mr. Bialik," my mother replies, "if you say to her or her father ‘Ssh,’ they say, ‘In the grave it will be quiet.’"
"From Coney Island to the cemetery," says my papa. "It’s the same subway, it’s the same fare."
I am right next to the pickle barrel. My pinky is making tiny whirlpools in the brine. I stop a moment to announce: "Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup. Campbell’s S-c-otch Broth. . .
"Be quiet," the grocer says, "the labels are coming off."
"Please, Shirley, be a little quiet," my mother begs me.
In that place the whole street groans: Be quiet! Be quiet! but steals from the happy chorus of my inside self not a tittle or a jot.
There, too, but just around the comer, is a red brick building that has been old for many years. Every morning the children stand before it in double lines which must be straight. They are not insulted. They are waiting anyway.
I am usually among them. I am, in fact, the first, since I begin with "A".
One cold morning the monitor tapped me on the shoulder. "Go to Room 409, Shirley Abramowitz" he said. I did as I was told. I went in a hurry up a down staircase to Room 409, which contained sixth-graders. I had to wait at the desk without wiggling until Mr. Hilton, their teacher, had time to speak.
After five minutes he said, "Shirley?"
"What?" I whispered.
He said, "My! My! Shirley Abramowitz! They told me you had a particularly loud, clear voice and read with lots of expression. Could that be true?"
"Oh yes," I whispered.
"In that case, don’t be silly; I might very well be your teacher someday. Speak up, speak up." "Yes," I shouted"
"More like it," he said. "Now, Shirley, can you put a ribbon in your hair or a bobby pin? It’s too messy."
"Yes!" I bawled."
"Now, now, calm down." He turned to the class. "Children, not a sound. Open at page 39. Read till 52. When you finish, start again." He looked me over once more. "Now, Shirley, you know, I suppose, that Christmas is coming. We are preparing a beautiful play. Most of the parts have been given out. But I still need a child with a strong voice, lots of stamina. Do you know what stamina is? You do? Smart kid. You know, I heard you read "The Lord is my shepherd" in Assembly yesterday. I was very impressed. Wonderful delivery. Mrs. Jordan, your teacher, speaks highly of you. Now listen to me, Shirley Abramowitz, if you want to take the part and be in the play, repeat after me, ‘I swear to work harder than I ever did before.’ "
I looked to heaven and said at once, "Oh, I swear." I kissed my pinky and looked at God.
"That is an actor’s life, my dear," he explained. "Like a soldier’s, never tardy or disobedient to his general, the director. Everything," he said, "absolutely everything will depend on you."
That afternoon, all over the building, children scraped and scrubbed the turkeys and the sheaves of corn off the schoolroom windows. Goodbye Thanksgiving. The next morning a monitor brought red paper and green paper from the office. We made new shapes and hung them on the walls and glued them to the doors.
The teachers became happier and happier. Their heads were ringing like the bells of childhood. My best friend, Evie, was prone to evil, but she did not get a single demerit for whispering. We learned, "Holy Night" without an error. "How wonderful!" said Miss Glace, the student teacher. "To think that some of you don’t even speak the language!" We learned "Deck the Halls" and "Hark! The Herald Angels" … they weren’t ashamed and we weren’t embarrassed.
Oh, but when my mother heard about it all, she said to my father, "Misha, you don’t know what’s going on there. Cramer is the head of the Tickets Committee."
"Who?" asked my father. "Cramer? Oh yes, an active woman."
"Active? Active has to have a reason. Listen," she said sadly, "I’m surprised to see my neighbors making tra-la-la for Christmas."
My father couldn’t think of what to say to that. Then he decided: "You’re in America Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas … Some joke, Ha?"
"Very funny, Misha. What is becoming of you? If we came to a new country a long time ago to run away from tyrants, and instead we fall into a creeping pogrom, that our children learn a lot of lies, so what’s the joke? Ach, Misha, your idealism is going away."
"So is your sense of humor."
"That I never had, but idealism you had a lot of."
"I’m the same Misha Abramovitch, I didn’t change an iota. Ask anyone."
"Only ask me," says my mama, may she rest in peace. "I got the answer."
Meanwhile the neighbors had to think of what to say too.
Marty’s father said: "You know, he has a very important part, my boy."
"Mine also," said Mr. Sauerfeld.
"Not my boy!" said Mrs. Kleig. "I said to him no. The answer is no. When I say no! I mean no!"
The rabbi’s wife said, "It’s disgusting!" But no one listened to her. Under the narrow sky of God’s great wisdom she wore a strawberry-blond wig.
Every day was busy and full of experience. I was Right-hand Man. Mr. Hilton said: "How could I get along without you, Shirley!"
He said: "Your mother and father ought to get down on their knees every night and thank God for giving them a child like you."
He also said: "You’re absolutely a pleasure to work with, my dear, dear child."
Sometimes he said: "For godsakes, what did I do with the script? Shirley! Shirley! Find it."
Then I answered quietly: Here it is, Mr. Hilton."
Once in a while, when he was very tired, he would cry out: "Shirley, I’m just tired of screaming at those kids. Will you tell Ira Pushkov not to come in till Lester points to that star the second time?"
Then I roared: "Ira Pushkov, what’s the matter with you? Dope! Mr. Hilton told you five times already, don’t come in till Lester points to that star the second time."
"Ach, Clara," my father asked, "what does she do there till six o’clock she can’t even put the plates on the table?"
"Christmas," said my mother coldly.
"Ho! Ho!" my father said. "Christmas. What’s the harm? After all, history teaches everyone. We learn from reading this is a holiday from pagan times also, candles, lights, even Hanukkah. So if they think it’s a private holiday, they’re only ignorant, not patriotic. What belongs to history belongs to all men. You want to go back to the Middle Ages? Is it better to shave your head with a second-hand razor? Does it hurt Shirley to learn to speak up? It does not. So maybe someday she won’t live between the kitchen and the shop. She’s not a fool."
I thank you, Papa, for your kindness. It is true about me to this day. I am foolish but I am not a fool.
That night my father kissed me and said with great interest in my career, "Shirley, tomorrow’s your big day. Congrats."
"Save it," my mother said. Then she shut all the windows in order to prevent tonsillitis.
In the morning it snowed. On the street corner a tree had been decorated for us by a kind city administration. In order to miss its chilly shadow our neighbors walked three blocks east to buy a loaf of bread. The butcher pulled down black window shades to keep the colored lights from shining on his chickens. Oh, not me. On the way to school, with both my hands I tossed it a kiss of tolerance. Poor thing, it was a stranger in Egypt.
I walked straight into the auditorium past the staring children. "Go ahead, Shirley!" said the monitors. Four boys, big for their age, had already started work as propmen and stagehands.
Mr. Hilton was very nervous. He was not even happy. Whatever he started to say ended in a sideward look of sadness. He sat slumped in the middle of the first row and asked me to help Miss Glace. I did this, although she thought my voice too resonant and said, "Show-off!"
Parents began to arrive long before we were ready. They wanted to make a good impression. From among the yards of drapes I peeked out at the audience. I saw my embarrassed mother.
Ira, Lester, and Meyer were pasted to their beards by Miss Glace. She almost forgot to thread the star on its wire, but I reminded her. I coughed a few times to clear my throat. Miss Glace looked around and saw that everyone was in costume and on line waiting to play his part. She whispered, "All right …" Then:
Jackie Sauerfield, the prettiest boy in the first grade, parted the curtains with his skinny elbows and in a high voice sang out:
We are here
To make a Christmas play in time.
It we give
And illustrate with pantomime.
My voice burst immediately from the wings to the great shock of Ira, Lester, and Meyer, who were waiting for it but were surprised all the same.
"I remember, I remember, the house where I was born…"
Miss Glace yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house – an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.
It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd’s stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father’s prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered round Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to a famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" the soldiers who were sheiks grabbed poor Marty to pin him up to die, but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city – in this world – now knows, I shall have life eternal."
That night Mrs. Kornbluh visited our kitchen for a glass of tea.
"How’s the virgin?" asked my father with a look of concern.
"For a man with a daughter, you got a fresh mouth, Abramovitch."
"Here," said my father kindly, "have some lemon, it’ll sweeten your disposition."
They debated a little in Yiddish, then fell in a puddle of Russian and Polish. What I understood next was my father, who said, "Still and all, it was certainly a beautiful affair, you have to admit, introducing us to the beliefs of a different culture."
"Well, yes," said Mrs. Kornbluh. "The only thing … you know Charlie Turner – that cute boy in Celia’s class – a couple others? They got very small parts or no part at all. In very bad taste, it seemed to me. After all, it’s their religion."
"Ach," explained my mother, "what could Mr. Hilton do? They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler? The English language they know from the beginning by heart. They’re blond like angels. You think it’s so important they should get in the play? Christmas … the whole piece of goods … they own it."
I listened and listened until I couldn’t listen anymore. Too sleepy, I climbed out of bed and kneeled. I made a little church of my hands and said, "Hear, O Israel…" Then I called out in Yiddish, "Please, good night, good night. Ssh." My father said, "Ssh yourself," and slammed the kitchen door.
I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passersby, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.
Grace Paley reading her story, “The Loudest Voice.” It’s included in Grace Paley, The Collected Stories from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and recorded at VPR for New Letters On The Air in 1998..