The Birth of a Jewish Storyteller by Amy Hest
It all starts, I suppose, with Aunt Harriet. A nice Jewish girl from the Bronx.
(My mother, a reliable source, and a quite good storyteller in her own right, is the one who told me that my Aunt Harriet had always been, absolutely, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx.)
Okay then, the year is 1942, and Aunt Harriet goes to a party. She goes with her best friend, whose name, so you know, is Judy. They are seventeen, maybe eighteen. Where is the party? Honestly, I have no idea. But surely, they are dressed up and made up and giggly on the long subway ride to the party. I wish I knew about their dresses, and shoes, and lipsticks, but my mother forgot to tell that part of the story. What I do know, and this is huge, is that Judy meets a boy at the party. A nice boy. Not to be outdone by her best friend, Aunt Harriet meets one, too. A really nice boy! From Manhattan! I sincerely wish I knew some juicy details of the goings-on at this party, but I’m sorry to say my mother left out those details of the story.
Or maybe, just maybe, it starts somewhere else. At a Friday night dinner table on Long Island. It is 1956. I am six years old, and the family is gathered, as it is every Friday night, for Shabbat. My mother is there, and my father. Grandmother. Grandfather. My brother, and me. The dog, Rusty, is under the table, close to my chair. He is good at waiting, and I am good at sharing. Rusty, my loyal ally, he would never tell on me. Unlike my big brother, who lives to tell on me. The problem for a brother, of course, is there’s nothing much to tell. Since I’m kind of perfect. Ask anyone at that table, they’ll all say pretty much the same thing. Amy! Such a quiet, sweet little girl! Amy! Stellar report cards, always! Always walks the dog, never complains, even if it’s raining! Never rude, never fresh, our Amy! Interesting how much they miss about me. Including the version of me who spies without compunction, secretly listening to the best grownup stories, the juiciest of the juicy! Or the version of me who dumps her detestable oatmeal (and yucky vitamins) down the sink when no one is looking each morning. There’s more. Lots more, the point being, there’s lots they miss. I am in fact a pretty far cry from perfect.
But getting back to that dinner table, circa 1956. The conversation jumps around: pass this, pass that, what’s for dessert, when is dessert, NOW can I have dessert; business is good, business is not so good, Can I be excused? NOW can I be excused, the usual. Suddenly, though, things get a tad unusual. It seems the quiet one, Miss Perfect (me, obviously) who rarely has much to say, now has something important to say. Her tone, utterly sincere. Choice of words, precise. THE MAN CAME AGAIN TODAY. HE TOOK MOMMY FOR A RIDE IN HIS CADILLAC. In my memory of this moment, everything stops, maybe even the clock on the dining room wall, and all eyes turn to me. THE MAN, I proceed slowly, as if they should know. HE COMES IN THE AFTERNOON, I go on, WHEN DADDY’S AT WORK, TO TAKE MOMMY FOR A RIDE IN HIS BIG BLACK CADILLAC. All eyes still on me. I like this. I like that I have a voice. And everyone’s attention. I like that they’re glued to my words, my story, and they’re waiting for more. 65 years later, I return to this night, and the fact that nobody at that table actually asks are you making it up, Amy? Is there a man, really, Amy? That’s how good my storytelling was! What power! And for the record, 65 years later, I am 100% sure, knowing my mother – and I think that I do – there was no man. Or Cadillac. So, what makes me tell that story? Honestly, I have no idea. Not a clue. What I do know is this: that was probably the day I figured out what business I would be in for the rest of my life. The business of telling stories.
Which brings me back to Aunt Harriet. And that party, and while I wasn’t there, I know this to be true. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Love happens. And war. It is 1942. Young men enlist. I love you’s are said. Tears flow. Promises are made. Boys becomes soldiers and Harriet’s boy goes to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. Time passes. Tears flow. One night, Harriet secretly packs a small bag, sneaks off to Penn Station, boards the train for Biloxi. AND A FEW DAYS LATER — this, from my mother — AUNT HARRIET RETURNS TO THE CITY, MARRIED! THEY WERE TOO YOUNG, MUCH TOO YOUNG. My mother’s judging words, but the little girl who is me only hears a thousand I love you’s.
That story, the one I heard from my mother, speaks to me still. Romance! Love! War! THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY is my version of that story. It starts with a young soldier going off to war. I add a baby to the mix, and a beach. Three kids, a dog, a library. I add layer upon layer of pain and joy, friendship and promises, broken hearts, and healing hearts. It’s a love story, for sure, THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY. I wrote every word, so in that sense, it’s mine. But it all starts with Aunt Harriet, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx.
Amy Hest is the author of many beloved books for young readers, including Remembering Mrs. Rossi, Letters to Leo, and the Katie Roberts novels. She is also the author of many picture books, including Kiss Good Night, When Jesse Came Across the Sea, and the Baby Duck books. Her more recent titles include Buster and the Baby, On the Night of the Shooting Star and Are You Sure, Mother Bear? Amy Hest lives in New York City.