NOBODY WILL TELL YOU THIS BUT ME
A True (as Told to Me) Story
By Bess Kalb
Bess Kalb’s grandmother Bobby was born on a dining room table in Brooklyn; her mother, Rose, a working-class Russian immigrant, “didn’t want to ruin the bed linens.” Nine decades later, not long after Bobby’s death, Kalb is wandering through her grandmother’s apartment in Westchester, N.Y., looking for “tchotchkes” to claim as mementos. But the items she chooses — among them a Limoges egg, a Brooks Brothers shirt, lipsticks by Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent — serve also as a measure of how far her grandmother came in her lifetime: from a “tenement in Brooklyn” to the upscale suburbs; from the bottom of the social ladder to its uppermost rungs.
On Bobby’s wedding day, Rose realizes she doesn’t own any dress shoes, so she paints her brown work boots black. (The rabbi’s secretary later sends Bobby’s father a cleaning bill for the stained synagogue carpet.) Two generations later, it’s hard to imagine any hand-painted shoes among the designer labels in Bobby’s closet.
In her author’s note, Kalb calls her debut memoir, “Nobody Will Tell You This but Me,” an “oral history.” Bobby is the ventriloquized “Me” of the title, telling, from beyond the grave, a version of her life story in four sections: “My Mother,” “Your Mother,” “Our Life Together” and “After Me.” Kalb is the “you,” the audience for her no-nonsense grandmother’s family anecdotes, wisecracks and warnings. Throughout Bobby’s conversational but always assertive narration are interspersed photographs, reconstructed conversations and transcribed voice mail messages, which together create a diaristic record of not just her own but also Kalb’s career and love life.
[ Read an excerpt from “Nobody Will Tell You This but Me.” ]
I cried twice reading Kalb’s “representation” of Bobby’s life: once at the end of Bobby’s account of Rose’s improbable migration, as an unaccompanied 12-year-old, from Belarus to America in the 1880s, to flee Russian anti-Semitism (“There is no life here, Rose,” her own mother told her, “only death”), and then again during Bobby’s brother’s law school graduation, when she watches Rose, sweating in a jacket so small on her it’s splitting at the seams, smile through tears and repeat, “My son, my son, my son.” If the second half of Kalb’s narrative is less affecting than the first, perhaps that is simply because everything after escape from a probable pogrom must be.