How To Learn Life Lessons from Birth, Death, and Voicemails, with Bess Kalb

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Bess Kalb is an Emmy-nominated writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and author of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, a laugh/cry book based on her close relationship with her late grandmother. Bess talks about recently becoming a mother herself, raising an infant in isolation, and the wisdom she continues to derive from her grandma: “There’s a refrain that my grandma said frequently throughout her life. It’s, ‘Bessie, when the earth is cracking behind your feet and you feel like the whole world is going to swallow you up, you put one foot in front of the other and keep going forward.’”

Show Notes

You can follow Bess on Twitter and Instagram.
Check out her book Nobody Will Tell You This But Me wherever books are sold.


[00:38] Hi, I’m Bess Kalb, I’m the author of Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, and this is Good Kids. My mom and my grandma had this intense, fiercely loyal love, which I think a lot of kids of Jews can relate to. It’s this sort of anything for my child. I will move mountains or my child. I will kill for my child. I don’t think it ever came to that. But again, I wouldn’t know and I also wouldn’t put it past them. They were just super scary, loving women, which isn’t to say they were particularly affectionate, but there was a sense that like if anyone crossed my child, they would fall off the face of the earth.


[01:20] And I definitely kind of resented, and was put off by that. But the day after I gave birth to my son, I realized like, nope, they’re exactly right. That’s exactly it. That’s 100 percent what I am going to be. I remember I saw his teeth chatter in the bassinet in the hospital, and I just had this sort of rush of adrenalin through me. As I was like barely able to stand, I was like, “where’s his hat!?” And I was like, yep, it’s on. 


[01:56] Growing up, my grandma had a terrible relationship with her daughter, my mother. My grandma was just not a very pleasant mom, and my mom left the house at 16 to go to college to get away from her. And my mom is her only daughter. And when my mom had me, my grandma saw this as a do-over. And so right away, she and I became extremely close. To the extent that my mom went back to work six or seven weeks after having me, she was a medical resident at a program at Columbia in New York, where there were no other women at that point in the ‘80s. And so there was no such thing as maternity leave. She had to sort of hide her pregnancy and then apologize for giving birth and go right back. My grandma ended up sitting with me all day, everyday from the time I was an infant, so she helped raise me. She was as close to me as a mother would be right from the beginning.


[02:52] I think my mom was just kind of grateful for the free childcare. You forgive all manner of like grandparents’ bullshit that happens. I am currently dealing with this, or at least before lockdown, with my parents and my son. But my grandma and I were interested in all of the same things and my mom was not. My mom like was a hippie who grew her hair out, lived in a co-op, and my grandma just wanted someone who she  could go to the beauty parlor with, go shopping with and enter me. It was all learning by experience with her. Like so many of the lessons that I still take to heart today are things that she taught me just through osmosis and through hanging out with her so much. So she would say things like Bessie, if you ever find a lipstick that actually looks good on you buy 20 of them because it will get discontinued and you’ll never forgive yourself.


[03:49] I’m not really a lipstick person, but after she died, I went to a Bloomingdales and like tried out a whole bunch of fancy lipsticks. I thought I found one that was great. I was like, yes, this is perfect. I’m quite literally Penelope Cruz. Wonderful. I bought five, which for somebody who would like wear lipstick to two events a year. And I got home and I looked like an orange clown. I looked crazy. So I have five Chanel lipsticks. It was good advice for someone who actually had a knack for that kind of thing. But like it’s advice I would definitely give to listeners who might know themselves better than I do. She taught me that, and one day I hope to find like a flattering — whatever, we’re never getting out of quarantine. There is no need to wear lipstick ever again.


[04:51] My grandma was just so effing funny that there were times when I would write down what she said. There were times when she would call when I was at work and I would put her on speaker phone, such like my writing partner Jeff feels like he knew her very well. This was just a woman who had one-liner after one-liner. And I couldn’t bear the thought of not saving what I considered to be comedy gold in my voicemail. And then after she died, I went through it all again and sort of had this memory board. I had this sort of time capsule of her and her voice and the things that she said. And turns out a lot of other people thought it was funny as well. And I just couldn’t bear the thought of deleting a voicemail from her. 


[05:45] I think I also as she got older and sicker, I was aware of the looming reality of her mortality. And I felt a little bit like I was trying to keep her in a capsule, trying to keep her on my phone, just in voice only. So I did it just purely as a devoted, somewhat-obsessed granddaughter to this woman who was really one of my closest friends. We spoke every day on the phone and the idea of losing her became more and more real. I just tried to hold on. Listening to the voicemails, that was really, really hard to do. In writing this book, most of the voicemails that are that are actually in it are from memory. They’re like cobbled together from scraps of what I remembered in her voice. And I was just sort of channeling the character of her when I wrote them.


[06:33] But when I was recording the audiobook, the publisher, Penguin Random House suggested, well, what if as special bonus material, we have some of the voicemails that listeners can experience for themselves. I said, great, good idea. At this point, I had just given birth. I had given birth like five weeks before. And I was tasked with actually going through and listening to all of the voicemails that I had saved. There are close to 40 of them. As much as the iPhone will let you save. And I was very dramatic. I like cleared the room, I had my husband take the baby. I was like, I literally drew the shades. I was like, this is my process. He was like, I respect that. This is going to be tough for you, do it. And I felt like such an idiot. I was just laughing. They were so good. They were so much funnier, in most cases, than anything I had written in the book. There was one where my grandma said, “Hi, Bessie, just checking in on your laryngitis. Call me back”. It’s like, well, you can’t make that up. That’s like, what? 


[09:44] My grandma died in 2017, and she really wanted me to have a baby, and was very open about that. One of the major reasons that she wanted to stay alive, she would tell me, I just want to meet your kid. I just want to meet your baby and torture him and get him hell. She really would say that. And getting pregnant for that reason was really bittersweet. Obviously, I was overjoyed to eventually give birth to Mr. America, but I knew how hard it would be and how sad it would be to not be able to share that with the woman that I spoke to every day about everything. And I knew how desperately she wanted to meet him. It’s very sad that he’ll never meet that woman that helped raise his mother, but I feel like this book serves as the connection between the two of them. It’s dedicated to him and to her. It’s my way to sort of drop a book in his lap and be like you want to know your great-grandma? Well, here she is. 


[10:42] He’s seven months old. And it’s heaven on earth. I would recommend it. No, he actually is having the best time. His life is so much better. And he doesn’t have friends that he misses, no offense. There is no outside world for him. It’s just now mom is around all the time. I am bragging. He’s obsessed with me. I’m his food source. I’m his number one play-thing. I am his entertainment. I do shaky hands. In that way, it’s gratifying for me because I’m a comedy writer. I am always just hoping for an audience. And I have one. Peek-a-boo kills. Tummy flubbers,  that’s like a 45-minute joyride. But his life has changed for the better. And in that, the horrible existential fear that adults have in this global crisis, that all kind of gets back-burnered when the immediate presence of this joy-boy is right in front of me. And I sort of tend to him minute-by-minute and live in his kind of Zen universe of like what’s in my immediate vicinity? Can I put it in my mouth? Is ma there? It totally forces you into the moment. It’s like he’s hungry, he’s tired, he’s OK.


[12:08] The most dramatic change in this is there’s really no handing him off to somebody else. There’s no daycare. There’s no babysitter. There’s no like, OK, now I’m going to do me. The world is closed, so I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing out on anything. But I feel like it has made me a much more attentive parent. I’m also really lucky that my son is the age that he is. This would be a lot harder with a sentient being. This would be a lot harder with a toddler or a teenager. I can’t imagine. This is just a sweet, happy baby who can’t even crawl yet, which is slow. Maybe there’s something wrong with him. No, he’s just like a sweet, fat, happy guy that I get to be super attentive to. 


[12:57] This is a sad thing, and maybe parents of babies my son’s age will relate to. So there’s definitely like socialization milestones that the app that I used to read before I was like, screw it, let’s just be day-by-day. The app said the children will recognize each other. They won’t necessarily engage with each other, but they’ll see each other. And my son is a super social baby like, we’ll pass people on the street, and he’ll like have this crazy smile and do what looks like a Miss America wave. It’s sort of gentle little thing. One hand up in the air. And he started doing that to the picture of a baby on the box of diapers that we just got from Amazon. And we were like, oh, no, that’s his friend. And so this morning, as like were like, we say hi to the trees, we say hi to the house across the street, we say hi, car. Who knows if that’s going to confuse him about communication, but it’s cute to see him wave. We now say, hi, diaper baby. He waves at his friend, diaper baby.


[14:16] My grandma is the reason that I became a comedy writer. I was a fact checker for a magazine and writing jokes on Twitter and, you know, writing sort of funny-ish pieces for the magazine on the side. And she said, what do you want to do? And I said, well, I want to write for The Simpsons, I want to write for television. And she said, well, what would a man do? And she said they would make it happen. And so my grandma just believed in me so much that I kind of believed in myself. And so I want to give my kids that sense of confidence by just believing that if he really wants something badly enough, he should at least try to do it. 


[15:03] There’s a refrain that my grandma said frequently throughout her life, and it’s something that her grandfather told her. And it’s something that I have been thinking about nonstop as we weather this pandemic. And it’s this. It’s, Bessie — or you can insert your name — when the earth is cracking behind your feet, and you feel like the whole world is going to swallow you up, you put one foot in front of the other and keep going forward. And that is something that she said so often that I would roll my eyes. But now I’m like, oh, you better just keep going forward because there is no other way to survive. 


[15:51] If you want to know every single thing about my life and marriage and parents and grandparents, you could read my book, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, it’s available now. If you buy it, I suggest you buy it from an independent bookstore. is a great way to support your local bookstore. And you can follow me on Twitter @BessBell


[16:18] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Andrew Steven is our producer, and the show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad. Westwood One is our ad sales and distribution partner. Like us, give us a five-star rating, and recommend us to a friend. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at

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