Bea Gold,
Tell Me a Story:
Stories from a Childhood in Old New York

(Outskirts, 2012)

This is a large (coffee table) book of stories and color paintings. The author, Bea Gold, joined a class for older Americans with the goal of facilitating the students to write about their lives. Gold was already a painter and woodcut artist, so combining the two media was a natural for her. The target audience for these vignettes, 36 in all, is the author's grandchildren, yet it can be enjoyed by anyone as a work of folk art and story-telling.

The stories include several portraits and descriptions of people: there is "Grandpa" with a little girl in his lap, who taught the young Gold to play cards and patiently let her play with his engraved pocketwatch when he came to visit. Sadly, in a later story, Grandpa is dying. He wants the author to take his watch but she refuses, because taking it would mean she was acknowledging his death. But the next day he passes away and the watch is gone.

An example of her recollections of growing up Jewish in New York is called "I Will Help You," in which the author recounts being in a subway station at age 17, when "I heard a creaky little voice crying, 'Will anyone help me?'" Gold went to the lady who was dressed in black and reminded her of her grandmother. She offered help but the lady kept wailing. Then Gold realized that she was hearing and understanding the woman, who was screaming in Yiddish, but she was answering the poor soul in English. "My parents always spoke Yiddish to me and because they wanted to me to be a good American, they expected me to answer in English. I never spoke Yiddish!" But the woman's plea for help had opened the language memory, and Gold managed to reply to her in Yiddish and was able to direct the old lady to the station she was trying to reach. The simple picture accompanying this story shows the taller, slender Gold with her arm around a huddled lady swathed in black from head to toe as a crowd bustles around them.

The artwork in Tell Me a Story has a simple but engaging style that Gold has perfected over many years. The portrait of the author and her mother smoking cigarettes together, both with glasses, one dressed in red, the other in blue, is especially endearing. The story explains that Gold's father got cigarettes for the two on the black market; it was their shared addiction, perhaps making the rationing of food a little easier to endure.

Not all the subjects are childlike; one story tells of Gold and her girlfriend getting flashed by perverts on a certain subway route, but since it was the only way to get to their school, they never told their parents. She tells of being ashamed of the lunch her mother packed for her when she started going to a new school. "It seemed to me that the little brown bag always smelled strongly and always had a fat stain on it ... my mother's food that I had always loved now embarrassed me."

There are not a lot of Americans now with clear memories of life in the States during World War II -- the rationing and other deprivations, and the importance of even small amounts of money (the author and her friend have a huge splurge when each of them wins $5 at a Bingo game) and the less homogenous society where to be Jewish, for example, was to stand out and feel one's difference. Combining these memories of culture and customs in both words and pictures makes for a rich, delicious mix.

book review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

7 July 2012

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