You know those books that have you exhaling deeply at the end, and exclaiming how lovely to finally read a book that absolutely needed to be written? Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell you this but Me is one of those. A “matrilineal” memoir that is at once sweet and a little sad without veering into melancholy or saccharine territory, it’s about the relationship Kalb had with her grandmother.
Through that lens, the memoir is of Kalb’s life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s mother and grandmother’s life – five generations seen through the conversations and memories of Kalb and her grandmother Bobby Bell. This is no dark and tragic tell-all tale of an abusive childhood, but a sweet and salty reminiscence of a well-loved family character. Kalb has the “Jewish” immigrant voice down pat, and there’s that slightly nagging, Seinfeld-squint commentary that we have come to associate with the stereotype Jewish mother. She captures the voice of this opinionated woman — she says “we” are not cat people, when Kalb gets a cat —
At times, laugh out loud funny, at others sweet, it’s not always clear who the narrator is. We’re carried through the great-great-grandmother’s flight — at age 12! — from Belarus, Russia in the late 19th century, arriving at Ellis Island, eventually marrying having her daughter who was “Bobby’s” mother. What is clear, however, is that Bobby Bell is Bess Kalb’s role model, hero, her ardent supporter and cheerer on, the steady light of Kalb’s childhood, who provided her with unconditional love — a little of it tough.
The memoir is told by Bobby from beyond the grave – Bess has saved every voice mail her grandmother left her – as Bess reconstructs the events of her grandmother’s mother’s and great grandmother’s lives. Kalb said in an interview that writing it was a way to cope with losing her grandmother who died at age 90. “I felt closer to her than I had in years, including when she was alive. I was able to try and inhabit her mind, but at the same time, it made me profoundly aware of the loss. Because the only reason I was writing this was because I couldn’t talk to her.”
The memoir sketches out the matriarchal line of adventurous women, starting with that 12 year old great-great-grandmother, through her daughter who gave birth to Kalb’s grandmother, and to the next two generations of women. There are even some comments from beyond the grave, to Kalb from her grandmother.