A granddaughter remembers…

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.

IKEA … sigh

I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself. I can write, edit, cook, clean, paint walls, ski cross country, help my kids with relationship problems. But I can’t put together anything IKEA.

Why do I keep trying, though?

Is it some perverse desire to test myself, the way some people scale mountains, say Everest?

Is it out of fundamental parsimony, refusing to pay for assembly when I should be able to do it myself?

Is it because I think I have all the time in the world (between fostering feral kittens, doing all my own marketing, accounting and production, taking yet more writing classes, reading up on white privilege/pandemic isolation/memoir writing, cooking for myself, managing my daughter’s university accounts, etc.)?

In the end, all I accomplish is frustration, a lot of saying Jesus’ anointed name (and not in a nice way), wasted time better spent making cookies, or preserves, or reading a damned good book.

The Food Ties that Bind

Reading Jan Wong’s cooking/travel/family memoir, Apron Strings. In it, she takes a culinary journey with her 22 year old son, staying with families in France, Italy and China to see how families actually cook at home.

While it has elements of a memoir — mother and son traveling together — it’s mostly food travelogue as Wong passes on the both the details and the large swathes of food history that she gleans along the way. She and her son, Sam, are minor characters in a larger diorama of families in each of the countries.

I’ve always been intrigued by food — I like to eat, therefore I like food and cooking — and learned how to cook by watching the chefs at the numerous restaurants I worked in as a waitress.  But Wong unearths so many wonderful bits of information I had no idea about. The Italians are obsessively clean! The only processor to buy is a Bimby (known as Thermonix in North America)! Catherine de Medici brought haute cuisine to France from Italy! Never add cream or butter to carbonara sauce! Use Moscato instead of Marsala in zabalione!!


A Writer’s Writer

A Writer’s Writer

How do I count the ways I love this book? Just finished reading Lit by Mary Karr. This exquisitely written memoir, with cudgel-like honesty, is the second in a trilogy and covers the period of her life from end of high school, through drinking, into university and more drinking, meeting her blueblod husband and marrying (still, and more, drinking) then getting pregnant and having her son Dev (no drinking), through her first published book of poetry, and a teaching gig at university, and eventually to divorce. Running through the narrative is her struggle with alcoholism, the attempts to quit, the mess it wreaks on a marriage that was probably not entered into for the best reasons, and her eventual sobriety through friends, discipline, her son, prayer, and surprisingly the mother she hated for so long, and ran away from for decades.

To say Karr is an incredible writer is an understatement. Nowhere is this more evident than in her account of coming to faith. In less capable hands, this coming more than two thirds of the way through the book would sound like an afterthought, but with her it’s a struggle for and in life, a long and winding road of resistance and capitulation, always cloaked by the shadow of addiction and a traumatic childhood. Her mother, an unrepentant alcoholic and neglectful parent (who freely admits this), leaves their father, takes Karr and her sister with her on her next marriage to a western town where she opens a bar, and where Karr was raped (at the age of 10 or 11?).

She is unsentimental about faith and shortcomings and God’s mercy: “all of my sinfulness in its ugliness, not in prayer but in its absense, capable of attacking with piety the defencelessness.”

Karr plunges into her senses in order to paint a full portrait — mixing sound, sight, smell, taste, touch, with intellectual soul searching, and wry humour. Sad in places but never sinking into melancholy. While the writing is crafted beautifully, it is full of substance. It’s striking how she manages to be as present in the recounting of her 17 year old self, as she is in her 40s. In the moment, she takes us with her.

The reason I kept a journal

Keeping a journal on each of my kids felt like an arduous task at times, but the rewards came later when I could read it and savour the little rascals all over again. Here’s an entry from a time with Anna:

Anna’s 11th bd was yesterday. She wanted a puppy. She was SURE she was getting a puppy. (As you know, we have two dogs already.) When I broke the bad news to her two days before her bd, the convo, if you can believe it, went something like this:

Her: You’ve ruined my birthday.

Me: But Anna, you don’t understand. I’d love to give you a puppy, but I can’t possibly handle three dogs.

Her: You don’t understand. I will take care of the dog.

Me: You told me that when we got Kate,  and then when we got Emma. And you didn’t follow through.

Her: I’ll sign a contract. And you can kill me if I don’t keep my end of the bargain.

Me: That’s ridiculous, and you know it will end up falling on me, and I have enough on my plate, just trying to walk two dogs once a day.

Her: Kate’s old, and sleeps a lot, and doesn’t feel very well, maybe we should put her to sleep.

Me (outraged): How could you say such a thing. That’s awful. Remind me not to leave my health care in your hands when I’m 85.

Her: I was just joking.

Me: I don’t think so.

Her: (downcast eyes): Don’t bother getting me anything then. If I can’t have a puppy, I don’t want anything. Don’t get me a trampoline, either, because I just won’t play with it (trampoline? who said anything about a trampoline???)

Me (guilt pangs): Anna, it’s also really expensive. Not just to buy the dog (she wants a West Highland terrier this time, and they’re $1500), but also the vet bills. I can just about pay the vet bills now for two dogs.

Her: (brightening at this prospect) I’ll pay. I have $1100 in my bank account. Actually more if you put in the money you promised to last year from my getting so many As.

Me: That’s not enough. Those dogs cost $1500.

Her: I’m having a party, and 18 of my friends are coming. I’ll ask them for money, so I can buy my own dog. I’ll pay for the dog food. You can pay the vet bills. Can you manage that?

Me: Wait a second… we’re not getting a puppy.

Long face, sad eyes.

Her: This is my worst birthday. I am going to bed and waking up on Saturday. That way, I don’t have to get up on my birthday and be sad the whole day.

Me: Alright then. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Five minutes passes.

Her: About that trampoline….



FYI and Flying Squirrels

A friend of mine posted on FB about her upcoming US trip via Frontier airlines but was nervous when her husband pointed out there’d been an issue. A woman was kicked off the flight because her emotional support animal is a squirrel.

But what really intrigued me was the fact I’d never heard of Frontier Airlines, so I checked them out and their flights are insanely cheap! You have to drive to Buffalo (from Toronto) but for $44 (USD) you can fly to Jacksonville, Fla, and then back again for another $44 (USD).