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.