“I Never Saw My Mother in a Clothing Store”

The comedian channels her grandmother’s tale of family and footwear.

Bess Kalb, Emmy-nominated TV writer and New Yorker contributor, saved every voicemail her grandmother Bobby Bell ever left her. Bobby was a force—irrepressible, glamorous, unapologetically opinionated. Bobby doted on Bess; Bess adored Bobby. Then, at 90, Bobby died. But in this memoir, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bobby is speaking to Bess once more:

ON THE MORNING OF MY WEDDING it occurred to my mother she didn’t have a pair of formal shoes.

My brother Leo had tried to give her money for some new clothes two whole weeks before the wedding, but she just laughed and called him a nudnik.

“You need a dress, Ma.”

“I have two dresses.”

“Come on. You need to look presentable in the photographs. They’ll be in an album.”

“All eyes will be on your Barbara.”

That’s what she called me to my brothers: “Your Barbara.”

In all my life, I never saw my mother in a clothing store. She bought her shirts and skirts from a secondhand charity shop and mended them when they ripped and that was that. She was indifferent to her appearance—everything was sacrificed for us kids. She had disdain for the Italian family next door, with the matriarch in lipstick and a fur coat heading off to church every Sunday. “Who’s it for, the Holy Ghost?”

When I was five years old, on the day of my brother David’s law school graduation ceremony, she wore her brown skirt and her stained white blouse and her ratty old hat. On her way out the door she accidentally took my father’s wool blazer, which was only about five and a half sizes too small for her. She barely noticed. The whole hour-and-a-half bus ride from Greenpoint to Morningside Heights, she sat there humming to herself, proud as anything you’ve ever seen, the circulation to her arms completely cut off.

Leo tried to say something. “Ma! You can hardly breathe in that thing.”

“What does it matter?” She laughed. “Who cares about the fit of an old lady’s coat?”

I have two words for you, Bessie: Giorgio Armani. We got to Columbia, and I’ll never forget the columns on the big white buildings and the curling bronze arches and the grandeur of it all. How the men walked around with such importance. Everyone in suits and ties and shiny shoes and carrying brown briefcases. I couldn’t imagine anyone there had ever heard of Greenpoint. I imagined them going home to their enormous apartments with endless rooms and servants who bowed and curtsied at the door.

We filed onto benches set up on the great lawn and waited with the other families—cleaner, more comfortable families. They all seemed completely at ease, bored even, fanning themselves with their programs and dreaming about lunch.

My mother was humming to herself and staring straight ahead. I saw how she was sweating from her temples. I watched the sweat form rivulets in front of her ears, down her neck, pooling in her collar. Leo noticed too. “Ma, for God’s sake. Unbutton the jacket.” She shushed him and sucked in her gut and straightened her back and jabbed him in the ribs.

We waited and we waited, and finally a man with a funny hat called out over the whole lawn, “David… Otis!”

She shot out of her seat and brought her fingers to her lips and whistled so loudly the family in front of us turned around and glared, and just as she applauded over her head, the damned jacket split under both arms. Zzzzzzppppp. Two huge tears, exposing the soaking wet blouse underneath for all of Columbia to see. I felt my face burn with such shame I had never experienced before.

But when I looked up at her, I held my tongue. She was beaming. I had never seen my mother smile like that before. I’d hardly seen her smile at all! Tears were streaming down her face as she clutched her hands together beneath her chin and repeated, “My son, my son, my son.”

Up in the distance, there was David in his long flowing blue robe, walking across the stage toward the dean, waving out at all of us and at the woman who got on a ship when she was just a girl so that one day, decades later, she could watch her child shake the hand of a kingmaker.

SO ON THE MORNING OF MY WEDDING, my mother wakes up and doesn’t have any dress shoes.

I had already gone over to Leo’s house down the block to prepare. His wonderful wife, Lily, had sewn my dress by hand. She took me to the Garment District and bought yards and yards of ivory satin, and she pinned it to her dress form and made the most beautiful gown. It was flowing with an enormous train.

And all of that was happening and my mother was standing there in front of her wardrobe. And it’s a Sunday and nothing is open but the hardware store. So she walks in and buys a can of black paint and a paintbrush. She brought them home and lined the front stoop and painted them black. Three coats, carefully applied.

The people walking by on their way to church must’ve thought she’d lost her mind. “Oh, there’s Mrs. Otis destroying some shoes. Hiya, Mrs. Otis!” She didn’t care. She fanned them dry, put them on, laced them up, and made her way to the temple an hour early.

When the wedding was over the rabbi’s secretary sent my father a cleaning bill for the synagogue carpet.

On the invoice it said, “Black footprints going up and down the aisle.”

Excerpted from Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: a true (as told to me) story, by Bess Kalb (Knopf). Used with permission.