In this upbeat, personable and welcoming memoir, Bobby Bell narrates from the grave, speaking not to us as readers (what we are used to) but speaking to Bessie, her granddaughter, the book’s author. It confuses at first, until the person behind the narrating “I” (Bobby) talks about her funeral and addresses her dear Bessie by name.
It’s a terrible thing to be dead. Oh, how boring. How maddening. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. No one to talk to. And everyone’s a mess. Thank God for that, at least. The rabbi at the service didn’t know me from Adam. I didn’t pay attention. I was watching your grandfather. I always hated Hebrew – Bessie, there was too much of it! – but when everyone started the chants he finally stopped crying. Fine. Good for Hebrew. I will say this: I’m more upset that any of you.
The switch in thinking of the narrator addressing the author isn’t hard to make, nor is this a complaint. The mention here is important merely as preparation; it took me three times rereading the first two pages of the prologue to settle in. After that, get ready to laugh out loud: Bobby is a riot, and this story is filled with colorful, outrageous stories delivered with perfect pitch and timing, a testament to author Bess Kalb’s comedic talent (she’s a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live!) and her gift for storytelling.
Bobby begins by sharing stories about her mother (Bessie’s great-grandmother) who fled Tsarist Russia when she was 13 years old, married at 18 and raised four boys (one set of twins) and Bobby in Brooklyn. Bobby came later (her brothers at the time teenagers and older), arriving on the kitchen table, like the boys. Their mother sent David, Jesse and the twins, Georgie and Leo, to the Social Security office to register the new baby’s name as Gloria Otis. “Too Jewish,” the boys thought, and took it upon themselves to change their baby sister’s name to Barbara Dorothy Otis.
Kalb inserts at this point in the story a phone conversation with Bobby in October 2009, where they talk about Kalb’s new boyfriend. It has nothing to do with the story of Bobby’s birth and name. Neither do other phone conversations and saved voicemails Kalb randomly includes in this section, but that’s the point – and counterpoint – to creating a true representation of life with Bobby. And these entertaining conversations and voicemails are not in this section alone, but throughout, a chorus of endearing true-life moments in this generational story.
They talk about Bessie’s move to San Francisco (“Your hair is going to be frizzy … I’ve already FedExed you a serum.”) and lipstick (“If you ever finally find a lipstick that actually, certifiably looks good on you, buy twenty of them.”) and Bessie’s desire to wear a favorite black dress to a daytime wedding (“It’s vulgar.”). About Bessie’s new boyfriend, an excerpt:
Bessie, is he Jewish?
Hello to you, too!
Is he Jewish?
He’s not. He’s from Maine. He’s a WASP from Maine.
So he’s a Christian.
He’s nonpracticing—I think he’s an atheist. We haven’t really gotten into it. He’s actually taking a class on Buddhism.
Oh my god.
Bobby shares stories about growing up with her brothers who took her to Coney Island, quizzed her on classic books and multiplication tables and schooled her in bravely taking on the world. She clearly comes from solid family stock of ingenuity, fearless confidence and disregard for what others think, not only from her brothers but also her mother, who saw no need for a new pair of shoes for Bobby’s wedding and instead applied black paint to her brown work boots.
[My mother] was indifferent to her appearance—everything was sacrificed for us kids. She had disdain for the Italian family next door, with the matriarch in lipstick and a fur coat heading off to church every Sunday. “Who’s it for, the Holy Ghost?”
Bobby’s marriage to Hank tells of hardship and success, and also a tense relationship with her daughter Robin (Bessie’s mother) whose rebellious self-realizing included a brief involvement with the Chicago Seven and skipping college to join an Israeli kibbutz. Keep in mind, Bobby narrates never with frowning woes and always with humor and a shrug. On her way home from Israel, during a stopover in Paris, Robin said she would call Bobby but didn’t. On a whim, Bobby called the American Hospital of Paris and got put through to her daughter, who’d been admitted with viral encephalitis. Bobby grabbed her handbag and drove to Kennedy Airport. The flight to Paris was full.
I took out my wallet and started counting out bills. I paid double, all in cash, and sat in the jump seat next to the stewardesses in the galley. I don’t think I blinked the whole flight. I was by your mother’s side in eight hours.
Robin went back to school and graduated with a medical degree. She and Bobby became close with the birth of Bessie.
Nothing I write here can capably capture the flare and humor of this book: the opinionated, dramatic, loving Bobby who rises up off the page with sparkling verve and the perfectly timed conversational pauses that create the comedy. More than anything, I want to keep sharing what I read, this inspiring event and that priceless remark, no wait, this one! Which ultimately boils down to saying, this is a terrific book. I didn’t want it to end because I didn’t want Bobby to stop talking, and I didn’t want to leave her generous spirit.
The longest Bobby and her Bessie went without speaking was the week and a half before Bobby died.
Just one more. An excerpt from a phone call February 2013. Bessie is cooking salmon for dinner. Her husband is still at work. (She married the boy from Maine).
Grandmother: Oh I love to make salmon.
Granddaughter: You make salmon?
Of course I make salmon. I just put it in the microwave on high.
And that works?
I don’t think I’m going to do that.
Bessie, can I say something?
Throw out the fish and order some decent food. Nobody wants to come home to salmon.
A note about publishing during the pandemic: Authors whose books are being published now have lost promotional opportunities due to the cancellation of tours, readings and other public events. From Bess Kalb’s interview on Vulture.com about lost publicity:
Even though [Nobody Will Tell You This But Me] is not going to get to the wide audience that a book tour or wide press push might have brought it, it’s getting to a smaller audience that is soothed by it. That is meaningful to me. Knowing there are people who are reading my grandma’s words and falling in love with her — and feeling comforted by her message of resilience, grace, and wit — that makes me happy. Because that’s exactly what she was talking about when she told me, When the world is cracking behind your feet, you put one foot in front of the other.