Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story

  • Review
By – June 30, 2020

Bess Kalb has writ­ten a mar­velous trib­ute to her beloved grand­moth­er Bar­bara Dorothy Otis Bell, known as Bob­by. When Bess was two-hours-old her grand­moth­er held her in the hos­pi­tal room — and from that point for­ward they nev­er let go of one anoth­er. This ten­der sto­ry is one of mutu­al admi­ra­tion across gen­er­a­tions and expe­ri­ence; it tells the broad­er sto­ry of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion from Rus­sia in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry, the desire for upward mobil­i­ty, and the strug­gle for Jews to gain accep­tance in America.

Bob­by was born on a din­ing room table in Brook­lyn, to her moth­er Rose, who left Rus­sia alone at age thir­teen. It was only when Bob­by near­ly died of menin­gi­tis that her moth­er told her the sto­ry of her expe­ri­ence leav­ing Rus­sia. She told her daugh­ter how most of the fathers had been mur­dered and the sons con­script­ed, nev­er to be seen or heard from again. Rose recount­ed how she ped­dled rags with the help of the local milk truck dri­ver and saved her kopeks for one year, until she had the equiv­a­lent of twen­ty dol­lars to book pas­sage to New York. Trav­el­ing by cart, train, and ship, Rose docked in New York where the trans­for­ma­tion from Rose Otesky to Rose Otis began.

In Bobby’s mem­o­ry, Rose rarely smiled. On her wed­ding day, Rose fash­ioned prop­er black shoes by paint­ing her work shoes with shoe pol­ish. Bobby’s hus­band of sev­en decades, Hen­ry Bell, became a devel­op­er and Bob­by his book­keep­er. Even­tu­al­ly they left their attic apart­ment in Brook­lyn and moved to Ard­s­ley; they bought a Flori­da con­do and a home in the only area in Martha’s Vine­yard which per­mit­ted Jews. They were accept­ed there because Bobby’s hus­band became a pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia University.

Bob­by and her daugh­ter Robin seemed to have less of a bond and more of a truce. Yet when Bess was born in New York Hos­pi­tal, Robin turned to Bob­by and, in fear and won­der, asked, What do I do now?”

Bob­by helped out. She would walk the young Bess to school; fly up from Flori­da on Tues­days of each week and stay until Thurs­day to watch her grand­daugh­ter as Robin returned to her med­ical rota­tions; she would sit out­side Bess’s ele­men­tary school class­room with her New York Times, serv­ing as reas­sur­ance that Bess was not, and would nev­er be, alone. Nev­er did they part say­ing good­bye. It was I love you, I love you, I love you.” Three times. Their bond with­stood time, geog­ra­phy, and disagreements.

Bess nar­rates an emo­tion­al and deeply affec­tion­ate sto­ry of love and fam­i­ly, that is engag­ing and filled with hope. Her sto­ry is unique, and yet there are uni­ver­sal threads that remind the read­er that, ulti­mate­ly, rela­tion­ships with fam­i­ly can be incred­i­bly influ­en­tial and endure for a lifetime.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

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