Chapter 1 Summary
Note: The chapters in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother alternate between the stories of Ruth and her son, the author. All the odd-numbered chapters are written in memoir form, with the mother telling her life story to her son. In the book, those chapters are presented in italics.
James McBride’s mother was born Ruchel Dwanra Zylska, an Orthodox Jew, in Poland on April 1, 1921. She no longer remembers the name of the town. When her parents came to America they changed her name to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and she changed it once more, to Ruth, in 1941 when she left Virginia for good. She had to leave that name—and her past—behind her so she could really live. She has been dead to her family for fifty years.
Ruth is dead to them now. They want no part of her, just as she wants no part of them. Her son wants to talk to them, but Ruth tells him he would be better off watching The Three Stooges, for Tateh would “have a heart attack” if he saw his grandson James.
When Ruth marries her husband, James’s father, her family mourns for her. Orthodox Jews say kaddish and sit sheva when a loved one is lost, and they do that for their daughter. They pray, turn mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days, and cover their heads. They have lots of rules but not a lot of love. Fishel Shilsky, Ruth’s father, is an orthodox rabbi who escaped from the Russian army and sneaked across the border to Poland. His marriage to Ruth’s mother was arranged. He always teases that he is quite slick at getting out of adverse situations, and it was true of him as long as she knew him. His family calls him Tateh, which means “father” in Yiddish. He wears the same clothes throughout his life, including a tallis on his shirtsleeve; he wears them until they are beyond wearing because he is cheap. He moves quickly when needed and is a hard man.
Ruth’s mother, Hudis, is the antithesis of her father. She was born in Dobryzn, Poland, in 1896; however, no one there would have any record of Hudis or her family. Any Jews who did not escape Poland before Hitler arrived there were eradicated during his regime. She is very pretty but was paralyzed on her left side by polio and suffers generally poor health because of it. Her left hand is crippled and useless, she is blind in her left eye, and she drags her left foot behind her as she...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
A few months before he dies, James’s stepfather finds a blue bicycle on the streets of Brooklyn and walks it home. It is a huge, clunky, old-fashioned bike with a motorized horn. Riding a bicycle becomes one of his mother’s two new hobbies (playing the piano is the other). James is fourteen when the man he called Daddy died at the age of seventy-two.
Hunter Jordan is steady and quiet and gentle. He marries James’s mother, a white, Jewish woman with eight children. James is the youngest, less than a year old at the time. Hunter and Ruth have four more children, and he loves them all as if they were his own. He often jokes that he has enough kids to make a baseball team. One day this strong, healthy man has a stroke and is gone.
After his stepfather dies, James regularly skips school to go to the movies and fails every one of his classes. His older siblings are concerned, but James continues his bad behavior: smoking reefer, snatching purses, shoplifting, and more. After a day of such activities, James sees his mother riding her blue bicycle as he heads home. People gawk as she rides by, a middle-aged white woman (the only white face in their Queens neighborhood) grieving her loss as she slowly rides her ancient bicycle. James is embarrassed.
Her first husband, Andrew McBride, died fourteen years earlier, while Ruth was pregnant with James. Although she is still beautiful and wanted, she has no interest in getting married for a third time. The family has very little money after Hunter Jordan dies, but Mommy grows adept at dodging bill collectors, playing the piano, willing her children into college—and riding that bicycle. She is odd and utterly unaware of the danger that puts her in by resentful people, both black and white. Kids whizz by her throwing small firecrackers; others throw baseballs perilously close to her head. Ruth is unaware of it all, and her children regularly sit on their front stoop and watch out for her. They all wish she would quit riding the bike, for doing so only adds to her oddness.
Ruth has always been odd. She never talks about her past, she drinks from a glass, she can speak Yiddish, she distrusts authority and insists on complete privacy for her family, and she ignores anything to do with race and identity. Hunter never did live with them; he worked in Brooklyn and left the basics of child rearing to his wife. Life is chaotic but Mommy is there for them when things...
(The entire section is 711 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Ruth’s parents, Fishel and Hudis, are united by a rov, a rabbi matchmaker who makes all the arrangements (including dowry) and prepares the marriage contract in accordance with Jewish law. There is no love in this union. Mameh’s family has all the money and position; Tateh sees her simply as his way to get to America. Her older sister and her husband are his sponsors when he comes to America; he is required to have sponsors to enter the country. He arrives first and sends for his family months later; once they get there, Hudis is no longer useful to him. Ruth keeps her transport papers with her for more than twenty years because she believed she could be sent back at any time. That is what her father tells them all—that he is a citizen but the rest of them could be deported back to Europe. Tateh is a cruel man. They live in constant fear of this threat, especially Mameh, who saw too many horrors when the Russian soldiers killed Jews and is glad to have escaped such terrifying acts.
When they first arrive, they stay in Manhattan with Mameh’s parents. Ruth loves this warm and loving couple. They are strictly Orthodox and keep a kosher house. Everything is eaten separately, no meat with dairy—and certainly no pork. The household is warm but strict in its Jewishness. Friday evening at sundown all activity ceases. The only thing a restless Ruth is allowed to do is read romance magazines, which she does for years.
When grandfather dies, everything moves quickly. He is laid out on the bed, and Ruth and her brother have to be lifted up to see him. All the traditions of mourning are kept, including sitting sheva, covering mirrors, sitting on boxes, and wearing black. He is buried that same night, and Ruth always thought it was too quick; she wonders if he is just joking. But in this family there are no questions, simply obedience. Ruth thinks maybe her claustrophobia stems from this moment of death because she did not really know what death was. Even the word “death” could not be said. From this moment, Ruth has a fear of death. Ruth always tells her children to kick or pinch her after they think she is dead to make sure she is really gone before they bury her. The thought of being buried alive scares her.
(The entire section is 407 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
James is always curious about where his mother came from. When he asks her, though, all she says is that God made her, then she changes the subject. When he asks if she is white, she tells him she is light-skinned—before she again changes the subject. Since their mother does not speak and their stepfather is not around to ask, the siblings piece together the little bits of information they gather. They tease James (as the youngest) about being adopted.
Often James wonders if they are right, for he looks nothing like his mother. In fact, all of his brothers and sisters are clearly some shade of brown, from darker to lighter, but his mother is clearly white. James has seen other light-skinned mothers and he has no doubt that they are black. He is certain his mother is white and is bothered that she refuses to “acknowledge her whiteness.”
Even his teachers seem to know his mother is white, which causes James more panic about being adopted. One night he waits up for his mother and questions her about their family. Mommy reminds him about Nash and Etta, his father’s parents. James remembers them as warm, brown, beautiful people. When he asks if they loved her, since her own parents did not, Ruth is silent for a moment. She then explains that her own mother died and her father “was a fox.” No more questions. As he eats a late-night snack, James has a clear sense that black people and white people do not get along.
In 1966, when James is nine, black power is part of everything he sees and hears. Malcolm X has died, and the Black Panthers are a dominant force in Queens. Talk of revolution is on the streets as well as in the McBride household. James and his friends regularly watch the local drag races and cheer for his stepfather and the other cars with the words “Black Power” written on them. Despite his cheering, James is also afraid of this movement because he is afraid for his white mother. When he sees angry demonstrations and acts of violence on the news, James understands these crowds would not hesitate to hurt his mother.
Mother is adamant about not telling any family business to people outside of the family; she trusts no one of either race and teaches her children to answer an ambiguous “I don’t know” whenever anyone asks about...
(The entire section is 835 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Ruth’s father is like every other traveling preacher, except he is a rabbi. He is slick like all the other itinerant preachers, but he is not particularly smooth talking, and synagogues soon figure him out and send him on his way. Because of this, Ruth’s family does a lot of traveling when she is young. Orthodox Jews live their lives by contracts; they have contracts for everything. Often the family is paid by food, shelter, and hand-me-down clothes. In the midst of the moving, Ruth’s younger sister Dee-Dee is born. She is the last of Mameh’s children; Ruth is not sure whether her sister is still alive.
This odd Jewish family attracts a lot of attention, with a crippled mother and always on the move. Ruth is often ashamed of her mother. She does not learn how to love until she becomes a Christian. When Ruth is eight or nine, in about 1929, the family moves to Suffolk, Virginia, home of Planter’s peanuts. It is a small, rather sleepy town, distinctly segregated between blacks and whites. The town loves oddities—but not Jews. Ruth is called “Jew baby” and “Christ killer” by her classmates in school, which affects her for a very long time.
When her father’s contract at the synagogue is not renewed here, Mameh refuses to move. Although the Jewish community is not happy about it, Fishel Shilsky purchases some property on the black side of town, sets up a rudimentary grocery store, and moves his family upstairs. Mother works better with her one good hand than others do with two. She cooks, darns socks, and keeps the Jewish traditions; yet her husband does not love her. He berates and belittles her, for she represents nothing but a contract to him. All he ever cares about is money and being an American; his family does not matter.
The store is all-consuming for the family. Ruth and her siblings run the store from the moment they get home from school; they do their homework between customers. They are the only store open on Sundays, so they get both black and white customers on that day. When Ruth has free time, she runs. She has plenty to run from, as her father is in the habit of sneaking opportunities to molest her. She suffers from his behavior for a long time, and it is part of the reason she has problems with people who are domineering or pushy.
People might think she felt so low, so bad about herself, that she ran off and married a black man. That is not at all what happened....
(The entire section is 527 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Mother loves God and goes to church every Sunday. She is the only white face in the crowd, and she sings every hymn with great energy and gusto, despite her horrible singing voice. In church she is known as Sister Jordan, and Rev. Owens overlooks her voice and appreciates her bringing all her children to church. He is a poor reader and struggles through every Bible reading, much to the children’s amusement. Sister Jordan, wearing her church dress and hat, chuckles and smiles and sometimes waves her hand, just like every other woman in the congregation.
Mother is a connoisseur when it comes to ministers, and she knows a good preacher when she hears one. Rev. Owens of Whosoever Baptist Church is not among her top five; however, his church is not too wild and reminds her of her “home” church. James is thankful his mother never “gets the spirit” in church, though other women do. As a boy, he does not understand why God would move in such a way. Later he will come to understand the “nature and power of God’s many blessings.” For now, he knows God is all powerful because his mother treats Him with such deference. Sometimes, when she is particularly moved, Ruth bows her head and weeps, which she never does at home. When James asks her about her tears, she tells him she cries because she is happy; James senses a deep pain behind the tears and is not convinced.
One day on the way home from church, James asks his mother whether God is black or white. After a deep sigh, she tells him God is neither black nor white: He is spirit. James continues his questioning; he wonders if God prefers black people or white people. Ruth answers that He loves all people because He is spirit. What color is God’s spirit, James asks, and his mother answers that His spirit does not have a color. It is the color of water, and water does not have a color. That satisfies James both then and for the years to come, but it does not satisfy James’s next oldest brother, Richie.
Richie is an outstanding tenor saxophone player who, like all of Ruth’s children, suffers from “some sort of color confusion.” Richie has always thought of himself as green, like the Incredible Hulk. One morning in Sunday School, Richie raises his hand and asks Rev. Owens if Jesus is white. When the reverend says no, Richie asks why the pictures always show Him as a white man. “Jesus is all colors,” answers Rev. Owens, but Richie is adamant and...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Shilsky’s store is located at an intersection at the edge of town. To the left is the wharf, where boats from all over the world stop for layovers or for repairs before continuing their journeys. Sailors often come to the store and invite Ruth and her sister Dee-Dee to see their boats. Mameh always politely tells them no, but young, distrustful Dee-Dee admonishes them to leave—in Yiddish. The store gets quite a lot of traffic by the standards of the day.
One day as Ruth is sitting behind the counter, she sees a car full of men in white sheets drive by the store. Then more cars full of these masked men drive by, almost like a parade. Ruth does not know anything about the Ku Klux Klan, but as soon as the black customers see the cars, they dash into their homes to escape notice. The parade moves right down the main streets of town, and no one ever tries to stop it. It seems to Ruth that death is inherent to this town; dead bodies are regularly found floating in the wharf or hanging from trees. Such things frighten Ruth’s family because Jews are not popular.
Tateh keeps a loaded gun under the cash register; he is prepared to defend his family and store if needed. He trusts no one and always thinks his customers are trying to steal from him. Ironically, he charges exorbitant prices for his cheap goods, so he is virtually stealing from anyone who comes into his store. Although he is not a good father to her, Ruth is worried Tateh will be killed accidentally, perhaps when he is cleaning his gun. When she is a mother, Ruth does not let her children play with toy guns.
Times are hard in the thirties. The depression is raging and people are poor. If they get sick, they will probably die because few can afford a doctor. Really sick people spend twenty-five cents for a packet of BC—aspirin laced with cocaine. The blacks in Suffolk live in shacks with no running water or bathrooms, no electricity, and no paved roads. Things are bad, but there is no one to complain to and there are no changes in sight. On Sundays, though, they all get cleaned up and put on their finest clothes for church, and they enjoy being together and in church. Tateh is disgusted with their happiness and scorns them for being poor. Ruth thinks her family has plenty of money but is not happy. The family is so miserable her brother Sam leaves as soon as he is big enough....
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
James is one of what his mother calls the “Little Kids,” referring to the five youngest children out of twelve. They still have to go to bed early, believe in the tooth fairy, and obey the whims and orders of the older kids. Despite that, the kids are all best friends—until it comes to food. Because there is never enough food to go around, getting and consuming it is a primary objective in this household. Food is hidden, searched for, stolen, and sneaked; there are no secret places in which to hide the precious commodity. They learn to eat in all kinds of positions because there is not enough room at the table for all of them to sit at once. Mother gets her dinner free at the bank where she works, so she brings home as much as she can reasonably store in her purse. Whoever gets to the purse first when she arrives home gets to eat; the rest go to sleep hungry.
Mother is a terrible cook; her pancakes have eggshells and at least one of her children calls her stew “prison stew.” She is not a good housekeeper, either, and she admits it. The house is a mass of items used by everyone. Although there is a boys’ room and a girls’ room, the items belonging to each room are everywhere. Four children share a clarinet (and pass it around at school), and they all share one washcloth, five toothbrushes, and an assortment of hats, coats, clean socks, sneakers, and gym uniforms. Their toaster shocks them each time they use it, the television rarely works, and their furniture consists of motley pieces—except for the two nice rockers Mother saw President Kennedy rock his children in and just had to buy.
Their house is “a combination three-ring circus and zoo.” An assortment of pets funnel through the household over the years, and the feats of daring and musical offerings rival those of any circus. Mother is not troubled with any of the minor issues of running the household; only the major problems (such as two feet of water flooding the kitchen) and education are important to her. She admonishes all of them to work harder and be more like Dennis.
Dennis is the eldest sibling, and he is a pioneer of sorts. He got good grades and has done all manner of important things, including going to Europe and seeing the Lincoln Memorial—twice. He actually carries real cash money in his pocket. He graduated from college and is now in medical school. As far as Ruth is concerned, he is a paragon of virtue and achievement....
(The entire section is 966 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
In Suffolk there are three schools: the black school, the white school, and the Jewish schul. Tateh is the head of the schul, and he conducts Bible studies with all the students and cantoring (singing) with the boys. He also circumcises baby boys and butchers cows in a kosher manner; he has a special set of knives for each activity. He relishes his bloody butcher’s duties. After watching her father butcher cows, Ruth cannot eat meat for many years.
It is the law that children have to attend school, so Ruth attends the white Gentile school. Tateh is derisive about the education she is getting and pays for private tutoring in sewing, knitting, and record keeping. Although he is tight with his money in other ways, Tateh is willing to invest in education. School is a miserable experience for Ruth because most of the students hate Jews and are merciless in their torment. This is when she changes her name to Ruth, which sounds much less Jewish; however, the tormenting does not subside. Even the other Jews look down on Ruth because her family’s shop serves Gentiles and blacks.
Ruth has one friend in fourth grade, Frances. Because Frances is a Gentile, Ruth is forbidden to play with her; however, Ruth is always welcome at her friend’s home, and she sneaks away often to spend time with her friend. When Ruth is there for a meal, there is nothing kosher she can eat; Frances is a true friend and always says the meal does not suit her, either. No one at school teases Ruth when she is with Frances. The two girls spend as much time together as Ruth can manage. They even spend long hours talking in the cemetery near Frances’s home; despite Ruth’s fear of dead people, even the cemetery is a comfortable place when she is with her friend.
Everybody in this town and at this time is poor. They do not have much money, but they also do not need it. Many families in town eat what they catch from the river—fish, crabs, turtles. Although she will experience true physical hunger once she is married, Ruth is never starving for food in her father’s home. Instead, she is starving for love and affection, something she never gets, at least from her father.
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
In the 1960s, if the family has any money, Ruth takes her children to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to shop for school clothes. She says that is where the deals are: “The Jews have the deals.” This is confusing to James because he only knows of Jews in the Bible. When they shop, Ruth and her dark-skinned brood cause the Hasidic Jew merchants to stare in wonder. Their mother drives a hard bargain for everything she buys, and often the merchants cluster together in a corner and discuss the situation in Yiddish. Ruth makes certain they know she understands what they are saying—and she tells them so in Yiddish. This causes her children to stop and gaze at her in wonder. They ask her where she learned this language. She tells them to mind their own business and tells them some of these Jews hate them.
While James never feels a close connection to the Jews, he is also aware that Jews are somehow different from other white people. A Jewish synagogue helped fund Rosetta’s college education, and Dennis came home from college with the surprising information that Jewish students support the civil rights cause. Ruth is quick to tell her children that if they are fortunate enough to come across the “right Jew” in their life’s journey, he or she is more likely to be kind to them than other white people are.
Because she always differentiates between white folks and Jews, Ruth’s children understand there is something different about Jewish people. Later, as adults, all of her children will understand the “love/hate relationship” between blacks and Jews because they lived it. Ruth forces her kids to attend predominantly Jewish public schools, and they receive genuine kindness from some as well as hatred toward black people from others. She admires the way Jewish families promote education and insulate their children from the pitfalls and dangers of the public school system.
She instructs her children to faithfully bring home every scrap of paper teachers hand them in school, and every January in particular, she scours the small print of these papers until she finds the notice she is looking for: the opportunity to enroll her children in other schools. The window is only a few days, so she stands poised to pounce on the chance when she sees it. After she makes her choices, her children end up in schools all over the city. They leave the house together at 6:30 A.M., armed with their books and supplies as...
(The entire section is 1297 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The only thing Tateh dislikes more than Gentiles is blacks, and particularly black men—and Ruth falls in love with a black man. It is not something she plans or designs, for it is a circumstance fraught with difficulties. Not only will it make her father angry, but in the South it is almost certainly a death sentence for a black man to touch a white woman. Ruth simply wants what other girls want: love, nice clothes, a date. Instead, her life is the store, and it does not satisfy her. She and Dee-Dee buy romance magazines in town and read them by candlelight on the Sabbath. This is Ruth’s only picture of what married life should be because her own family does not reflect love in any way. Tateh does not love Mameh, and their family activities include outings to chicken farms, where Tateh slaughters hens to sell back home.
No one at school asks Ruth for a date. She has long legs and can dance, and she makes the school’s dance team; however, some of the other girls object to dancing next to a Jew and she drops out of the activity. In gym class, Ruth is invariably the last girl picked—and if Frances is not around, she does not get chosen at all. As a teenager she wants their approval, and she wants nothing more than to be like them. Her father believes he needs a new car every year but his daughters ought to be content with the hand-me-down clothes from the church. This is a source of constant embarrassment to Ruth. No boys express interest in her, so when a black boy likes her and does not judge her, she is happy.
His name is Peter, and he is a handsome young man who lives in a house somewhere behind the store. He comes in often, but Ruth always has things to do and does not particularly notice him. He seeks her out and enjoys talking to her and trying to make her smile; however, he is careful to avoid her father. One day Peter asks Ruth to go for a walk; in doing so, he puts his own life at risk. That is when Ruth knows she loves him. He seems to be in love with Ruth, as well. He leaves her “torrid love notes” and sneaks off with her when they can. All is well until Ruth realizes her period is late, first by one week, then by two. It never comes, and she knows what that means.
There is no one she can tell; it is simply too dangerous for Peter, and she is afraid. He would be killed. After she tells him the news, Ruth suggests they go somewhere else and be together, but Peter says he has no idea where a...
(The entire section is 598 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Hunter Jordan Sr. raises James as his own son. His real father, Andrew McBride, died before James was born, so Hunter Jordan is the only father James knows. His stepfather is a furnace fireman whose job it is to maintain the huge boilers that heat the projects in which the McBrides live. He and Ruth meet several months after McBride died. Ruth is selling church dinners in front of their building, and he comes regularly to purchase a meal from her. He finally asks her to the movies, and Ruth says her eight children also go to the movies. He teases her about having enough kids for a baseball team, and soon the two marry and add four more to the brood. No one in the household, including Hunter Jordan, differentiates between the McBride and Jordan children. No one refers to each other as a half brother or half sister, and many of the children simply call him “Daddy.”
About six years after they are married, Hunter buys his family a four-bedroom home in Queens. Because he is a man who craves order, he is unable to live full-time in this chaotic household and keeps his former lodgings in Brooklyn. He arrives home every weekend with all sorts of treats and surprises, including a car with which he gives the children rides. Hunter’s father is black and his mother is Native American, and he is a seasoned and rugged man. He lived in Virginia and fled in 1927 or so after he broke a Jim Crow law and escaped from his prison cell. He and his brother ended up in Brooklyn, making and selling illegal liquor during Prohibition. Hunter got caught and served some prison time, but neither parent ever told their children this. Now he enjoys drinking a little too much with his three brothers, though Ruth never drinks and is unhappy with her husband when he drinks excessively. Every summer, Hunter takes them to his family in Richmond, and there is plenty of laughter. The children all love their father.
James thinks his stepfather is odd because he is nothing like any of his friends’ parents. He does not care about the Mets or talk about civil rights, he dresses in an old-fashioned way, and he is older than most of the other parents. All Hunter cares about are church and education for his children. But in 1969 he is forced to give up his Brooklyn home so the city can build a low-income-housing high rise in the space. He moves into his family’s home in Queens and converts part of the basement into his personal refuge and filling it with all...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Ruth knows her mother is aware of her condition. Mameh has very little responsibility, but she watches out for her daughters, and she knows Ruth is in trouble. She has long been aware of Ruth’s unhappiness and has been sending her to New York to stay with her family as often as she can. All of these relatives are rich, and most of them want little to do with their niece cousin from the South, the daughter of a crippled sister. Despite this, Ruth enjoys her time in New York because so much is happening and everyone is too busy to care about one’s race or religion.
Ruth stays with Aunt Laura, Aunt Mary, or her grandmother. Aunt Laura is older, lives in Manhattan, and is fabulously rich; in her house, Ruth must ask to be excused from the dinner table. Aunt Mary lives in the Bronx and runs a leather factory; this is rare for a woman to do at the time. Ruth works in the factory when she stays there because Aunt Mary is mean-spirited. She has two daughters who never have to work in the factory; their mother and the hired help spoil and fuss over them. The only one from whom Ruth feels love is her grandmother, Bubeh.
Ruth’s grandmother moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn after her husband died, and she does not speak English. Bubeh is witty and fun and clean. She has diabetes, so she has to take insulin every day and is on a restricted diet. There are always oranges in the house so Ruth can give Bubeh one if she goes into diabetic shock. This frightens Ruth enough that she wakens her grandmother every time she is napping and Ruth suspects she may not be breathing. With Bubeh, Ruth takes her first trolley ride and spends time in the park while her grandmother crochets or quilts with her elderly Jewish friends.
Aunt Betsy is the youngest of Mameh’s sisters, and it is she who recognizes Ruth’s condition after she arrives. Eventually Aunt Betsy takes Ruth to a doctor to have an abortion. It is a terrible and painful experience, and Ruth apologizes profusely to Aunt Betsy for causing her so much trouble. Aunt Betsy simply tells her not to let it happen again. Even though, years later, Aunt Betsy slams her door in Ruth’s face, Ruth is grateful for this one act of charity. She forgives all of Mameh’s sisters for their behavior; she understands they are simply too busy trying to be Americans and fit in to care very much for others.
(The entire section is 438 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
James’s mother grieves wildly after her husband’s death, though she gives away all his tools, his clothes, and his hats so as not to be reminded of him. Her routine remains the same, but her “fire” is gone. She often daydreams, and she cries when she thinks her children cannot see her. Hunter Jordan’s gold Pontiac sits in front of the house for a long time, and Ruth vows she will learn to drive it. Instead, she rides her crazy old blue bicycle and plunks away at the piano. Her playing is excruciating for James so he leaves, and there is no one at home to stop him anymore.
James’s grades plummet immediately because he leaves every morning but never goes to school. He was a good student in ninth grade; in tenth grade he fails every class. Just as his mother ran away from her family so many years ago, James is preparing to disconnect himself from his family. He is now the oldest, the king of the house, with the “power to boss and torture” his younger siblings just as others did him. Now that his moment has arrived, however, he stays away from home as much as possible. James quits attending church and avoids any godly influences in his life; he is the first boy on his block to smoke cigarettes and reefer. He joins a band and takes up shoplifting. He and his friends break into cars and sneak into train yards to steal merchandise from freight cars. They nearly get caught once by a young man with a gun and are frightened at that moment; however, it does not deter them from their illegal activities.
Finally the police chase James and his band of miscreants, and James barely escapes. He gets so drunk with relief that he is unable to make it home. One of his buddies gets him to his house, where James promptly falls down then gets up and urinates on the street in front of his sisters—as they frantically try to sneak him into the house before Mother sees them. When he wakes up hours later, James sees his mother sitting at the end of his bed, whipping belt in hand. With tears in her eyes, Ruth whips her son mercilessly. It does no good. James’s friends are now his family; his mother and his siblings are simply people with whom he lives.
The organized and carefully orchestrated chaos Ruth once maintained in her household disintegrates after Hunter Jordan dies. It all used to run smoothly, but now it is broken and Mother is “in no fixing mood.” James is hiding and angry but refuses to admit it. He...
(The entire section is 1208 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
After her abortion, Ruth writes to her father and tells him she does not want to return to Suffolk. For her junior year, she enrolls in Girls Commercial High School, right down the street from Bubeh’s home, and she has to work very hard. It soon becomes clear that she will not be able to graduate on time if she stays at this school, so Ruth returns home to finish high school. One of the first things she does is tell Peter she cannot see him anymore. He tells Ruth he loves her, and she is swayed because she still loves him deeply.
Not long after that, two black women enter the store. They are talking about Peter. One of them says Peter is getting married soon because he got some girl pregnant, and Ruth is stunned. She immediately seeks Peter out—in broad daylight—and does not care who sees them. He says he is being forced to marry; he also admits he did get the girl pregnant. This is heartbreaking news for Ruth, and she is hurt that she had to go off and take care of her “problem” while Peter was availing himself of some other girl. Ruth decides to leave Suffolk for good.
She is seventeen, she is developing her own opinions about things, and there is nothing for her in Virginia. Although she wants to go to New York, Ruth is moved by her love for Mameh. Her mother still speaks no English and is mistreated by Tateh, so Ruth is her translator and protector. Mameh is beginning to suffer some new physical ailments, but her husband cares nothing for her. He hires a black woman to help his wife, and she cares more for Mameh than her own husband does. This confirms Ruth’s desire to leave. She also fears she will be trapped into an arranged, loveless marriage. She would rather die first, which is almost what happens because she loses her mother and sister when she leaves.
The other students are giddy about prom and graduation, but Ruth has seen bigger and better things and plans to attend neither activity. No one asks her to prom, but her friend Frances begs her to walk with her at graduation. Ruth never told her about Peter or the reason for her trip to New York, so Frances does not understand what Ruth is going through. Because Frances is her loyal and true friend, Ruth decides to attend the graduation ceremony. Tateh is not pleased about spending money for a cap and gown; he is adamant that his daughter will not set foot in a Protestant church for the baccalaureate service. He is even more distressed that...
(The entire section is 566 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
On a Saturday morning several weeks after James returned from Louisville and a few months after Hunter Jordan died, Ruth wakes her son and tells him they are going driving. With his two-year-old niece in his arms, James follows his mother to Daddy’s car. As far as James knows, his mother has never driven before and is afraid. Ruth knows everything possible about the public transportation system and uses it religiously (which means she is late to nearly everything), but it is time for her to drive. She wants James to teach her, though he has only driven illegally.
By this time, James is beginning to take Chicken Man’s words to heart. He knows he is no smarter, no wiser, and no bolder than any of those men back on the Corner, and if he does not make a different choice soon he will end up right there on the Corner with them despite his brains and his potential. He knows he does not want to end up pumping gas or drinking all day or getting killed for crossing “knuckleheads” like Herman. He does not want to end up stabbed to death arguing over a bottle of wine. He recognizes that the seemingly carefree life is “ragged and cruel.” His sister Jack told him many times to put himself in God’s hands if he wants to succeed, and James knows she is right. He is determined to turn things around in his junior year of high school and “rebuild” himself. Like his mother, James spends his nights praying that God will make him a better, stronger person. God listens, and things begin to change.
One obstacle to change is that James is still strung out on marijuana. He wants out but cannot seem to break his habit, and he is jealous of those who have pulled themselves together and quit their addiction. James also suffers occasional flashbacks from the LSD he took often in the past year. Every single day, all day, he has the urge to get high; he satisfies his urge with pot, wine, and even NyQuil. Every night when James walks into his house, Ruth is there to shout at him about his red eyes and funny smell. James wants to quit, but he knows weed is his friend that keeps him “running from the truth”—the truth that his mother is falling apart.
Looking back, James sees that it took his mother nearly ten years to recover from Hunter Jordan’s death. It was the last in an accumulation of devastating pain of which none of her children were aware at the time. She kept her past a secret, yet it still haunted and grieved...
(The entire section is 837 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
When Ruth gets to New York, she works at her Aunt Mary’s leather factory and lives with her grandmother, Bubeh, who now lives in the Bronx. Things are different now because Ruth is no longer a child who needs help. Aunt Mary has become obese and is even more demanding of her, and Ruth feels some sympathy for Mary’s husband, Uncle Isaac. He is henpecked and browbeaten by his wife and turns to alcohol for his escape, but he becomes vulgar and mean after he drinks.
Meanwhile, Aunt Mary is carrying on with her best friend’s husband. He is a tall, handsome gentleman who comes to Aunt Mary’s factory twice a week and they have private time behind her locked door. Ruth knows this because Aunt Mary sends her to the store to purchase cheese, wine, and crackers. Ruth is discreet because she needs to keep her job.
In 1939, Aunt Mary hires a new man who has just arrived in New York from North Carolina. His name is Andrew McBride but he calls himself by his middle name, Dennis. He is the man Ruth will eventually marry. He is “inquisitive, and funny, and easygoing and secure.” He is also a skilled artisan, and soon he is one of the best workers in the factory. Aunt Mary likes to show her power by bossing people around. When she requires Dennis to haul a hundred-pound roll of leather, he simply explains he will not do what she asks because it is an impossible task for one person. Ruth is amazed because he is the first person to stand up to her aunt.
Dennis sees what is happening at the factory. He sees the trysts between Aunt Mary and her married man, and he sees how callously Aunt Mary treats Ruth. He says nothing, but he always offers Ruth a kind word or tells her a joke. Dennis is kind to her, but he is kind to everyone else as well. That is just the type of person he is. If Ruth had been a little wiser, she would have “snatched him up right away and married him.” But she is young and trying to run away from her family, and then she discovers Harlem.
Harlem was different then. Both blacks and whites go there, and it does not have the drug and crime problems the city has today. Harlem is like “magic.” Ruth quits her job at the factory and looks for a job at one of the theaters there. No one will hire her, a white girl in black Harlem. She keeps wandering around, looking for work. Her next stop is a beauty parlor. Back in Suffolk, she learned how to shampoo, finger-wave, and give permanents—on...
(The entire section is 881 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
In the summer of 1974, Ruth walks into her kitchen in Queens and announces they are moving to Delaware. Seven of her children are in college or graduate school; five are still at home. None of the children is in a financial condition to help her mother keep up with the repairs on the house. It takes weeks to pack, and James is eager to go. If they stay in New York, it is likely he will have to spend an extra year in high school to graduate; James also needs to break away from his former friends. He hopes things will be different in Delaware and offer him a fresh start. The younger girls, on the other hand, want to stay. When they explain their reasoning at a family meeting, Mother is convinced and announces they will no longer be moving. The older siblings look at one another in shock, for all the preparations have been made. There is even a buyer for the house, with a signed contract. Ruth promises to reconsider, and her final decision is that they will be staying.
Slowly, they begin unpacking. The very next day, Mother announces they will be moving; soon after she changes her mind again. This waffling continues from June through the August morning when the U-Haul truck is loaded and ready to go. They finally leave for Wilmington, Delaware. Ruth chose this city because it is a cheap place to live. She bought a house there for twelve thousand dollars, which is all she can afford.
Ruth and her family expected to fit right into the routine of life in their new community; however, there is only minimal public transportation and there are very few of the cultural events that were free and common back in New York. Delaware is a place of shopping malls and small-town gossip. It is also shockingly racially divided, and the schools are dismally segregated. This place reminds Ruth of the South, which she hates. After a racially charged run-in with some Delaware state troopers, Ruth decides they will go back to New York, and she begins to make some disjointed and impractical plans. James’s sisters have already boarded the Amtrak train and are on their way back to New York; two hours later, James convinces his mother to stay in Delaware.
Ruth is just trying to survive and do the best she can for her children and their education. Prayer finally helps settle her—prayer and the public school system. She sees the deplorable condition of the textbooks her children bring home, and she is dismayed at the inferior education...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
After she terminates her relationship with Rocky, Ruth leaves the fast life and settles into a more mundane lifestyle. She takes a job as a server in a diner. After several weeks Dennis seeks her out and they begin dating. Dennis is different from any of the other men Ruth has been around—he is more serious and thoughtful, more solid. He came to New York in his mid-twenties to pursue his music, which is later than most who make their way to the city. He is an only child and his mother needed him at home; she finally understood his need to study and play music in a place that would make him better. He plays the violin and composes mostly religious and classical music. He is also a fine singer and regularly sings at church.
When he first arrived in the city, Dennis nearly starved because no one would hire a black musician. He finally contacted some friends from the South who had done quite well and regularly took in fellow black Southerners until they could make their own way. Once he got the job in Aunt Mary’s factory, Dennis was able to live on his own. When he and Ruth begin dating, he takes her to his home and introduces her to his friends. They are all dumbfounded because blacks and whites did not have serious relationships or even walk the streets of the city together. They know Dennis is a serious Christian man, so they are struck by the seriousness of his bringing her to meet them. After they recover from the shock, they are welcoming and treat Ruth with warmth and hospitality.
Dennis’s family is welcoming of Ruth, though they do need to get used to the idea. Aunt Candis is Dennis’s favorite aunt and the grandchild of slaves. When Ruth enters her house for the first time, Aunt Candis apologizes for staring at Ruth and tells her this is the first time she has had a white person in her house; she has never been this close to a white person before, either. Ruth understands, and they are friends until Aunt Candis dies years later, at the age of nearly a hundred. After Dennis dies, Aunt Candis comes from North Carolina to help a grieving Ruth take care of her children. Ruth knows she would not have made it without her help.
Not long after they begin dating, Ruth falls in love with Dennis and wants to get married. Dennis is hesitant and suggests they live together as husband and wife because “the world isn’t ready for us yet.” They rent a room from an older couple; they have one of the three...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
In November 1982, James is driving to Virginia at four o’clock in the morning. He has just dropped off his ex-girlfriend, a black model with a two-year-old son. Ruth does not like her because she is likely to ruin her son’s future. At the age of twenty-four, James is a reporter for the Boston Globe; this is a prestigious job for a young, black man. His best friend at work is an old, white guy who is the paper’s jazz critic, and spending time with him reignites James’s passion for music. James is having an identity crisis. He wonders whether he should pursue writing or music—he does not know if he can do both. Boston is a racially charged town, where issues of class, politics, education, and history are full of racial tension. He is on his way to Suffolk, Virginia, guided by a hand-drawn map his mother gave him.
It has taken James years to get this information from her. Wanting to know his mother’s story has gnawed at him since he was a young boy, and he finally wore her down enough to give him this map. It is a drawing of where her home and her family’s shop are in relation to the landmarks around it. Ruth lived in Suffolk for thirteen years but does not remember one name from there except Frances—no last name, just Frances. So James is on his way to Suffolk, Virginia, with a crude map, looking for a woman named Frances.
He arrives, exhausted, at 7 A.M. and orders some food at a McDonald’s. After he sits, he examines the map and comes to the shocking conclusion that his mother’s family store used to be in this exact spot. He leaves his food untouched and goes outside to examine the property. He finds an old house behind the McDonald’s and knocks on the door. An old, bespectacled black man answers the door. James tells him what he is looking for—his mother’s family, Shilsky, Jewish, a little store. The man looks at him a long time then invites James into his house. He brings James a soda and asks to hear the entire story. James tells him everything he knows while the man nods and listens closely. Then he breaks into a smile and says that James must be “ol’ Rabbi Shilsky’s grandson.” First the man chuckles, then he bursts into uncontrollable laughter and cannot stop. James starts to get angry and the man apologizes.
The man’s name is Eddie Thompson. He is sixty-six years old and has lived in this house all his life. He remembers Ruth, though they used to call her...
(The entire section is 765 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
While Ruth is still in Suffolk in the summer of 1941, Mameh receives a letter from her family in New York. They say they have three rooms worth of furniture and ask if she wants it. Bubeh lives in a three-room apartment; this is their way of telling her Bubeh is dead. The letter is in English (which Mameh cannot read) and addressed to Tateh. After he reads it, he tosses the letter to Ruth and tells her to read it to her mother. Ruth waits until the evening to do so, to spare her mother a day of sadness at the store. Mameh sits in the rocker and remains silent and motionless, with tears slipping down her face. In bed that night, Tateh weeps for her dead mother; Ruth has never forgotten that sound.
Ruth does not stay in Suffolk much longer, despite her mother’s single request for her to stay. She tries to talk to Dee-Dee before she leaves, but her sister simply reminds her of the promise she made and walks away. As Ruth leaves, Mameh hands her a sack lunch and kisses her. Ruth never sees her mother or her sister again. Tateh does not say a word as she leaves, but he drives to the bus station and begs her to stay. He offers her many things, including a college education, but Ruth is adamant. When he tells Ruth her mother needs her, they argue. Though he has divorced her, he still uses Mameh against his daughter. Then he warns her that if she marries a black man she will never be welcome in his home. How he knew this was her intention, Ruth never knows. As she is crying on the bus, Ruth opens the bag her mother sent her. In between the food is her mother’s Polish passport. It is the only picture Ruth has of her mother.
A few weeks after Ruth returns to the city, Dennis overhears Aunt Mary say that Tateh has a detective looking for his daughter. Ruth keeps a low profile in Harlem and gets a job at a glass factory in Chelsea. Not long after, Dennis hears that Ruth’s mother is sick and is in a hospital in the Bronx. Ruth immediately calls Aunt Mary to ask about Mameh, but she is told that the family sat shiva for her and she is dead to them. Ruth is upset and hurt, but Dennis tells her doing more might hurt Mameh so she does nothing. A few days later Dennis calls her at the factory and tells her Mameh just died. Ruth goes into the locker room and falls on the floor, howling her grief.
Ruth is depressed for months. She does not eat and contemplates suicide. She walks places and cannot remember how she got...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
In August 1992, James is standing in front of the small synagogue in Suffolk where his mother and her family once attended services. When he was a boy, Jewish holidays were nothing more than days off from school; now they are part of his family’s heritage. While he is standing there, some police officers come by and watch him carefully. A black man loitering anywhere is still likely to attract the interest of the police in Virginia, and James is sure his explanation—that his grandfather used to be the rabbi here—is not likely to be believed. He sits on the front steps with his tape recorder and his notebook.
James’s long search for the Shilsky family ends here. He has scoured records and knows his grandmother Hudis (Mameh) is buried in Long Island in a Jewish cemetery. Sergeant Sam Shilsky died in 1944 but his service records have been lost. Rabbi Shilsky’s last known address is in Brooklyn. Dee-Dee withdrew from Suffolk High one semester short of graduation; five days later her mother died. James thinks about what it must have been like for her, stripped of anyone who ever loved her and alone except for her Jewish father who had taken up with a Gentile woman and had another family. She is probably alive, James thinks, but he is reluctant to bring any more pain into her life by finding her.
James has never been inside a synagogue, though he has learned that he is technically a Jew based on his heritage. When he calls the rabbi of this synagogue, he is met with virtual indifference. The rabbi remembers the Shilskys. When James asks if he can see some of the synagogue records for a book he is writing on his family, the rabbi curtly tells him there is nothing in the records that would help him. When James asks to see inside the building, the rabbi is curtly uncooperative, and James knows it will not happen.
James continues to sit, remembering a visit to Suffolk ten years earlier. He was searching the records in a state office building when he met Aubrey Rubenstein, whose father had taken over Shilsky’s store when the rabbi left. He just looked at James for a very long time. Rubenstein called someone named Jaffe and told him that Fishel Shilsky’s grandson was here. After he hung up, they had a long conversation about how the only Jews left in the area were those connected to their business, for it was a hard place to be for a Jew. He was impressed with Ruth’s story and sent his regards to her via...
(The entire section is 700 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
Ruth and Dennis are living in an apartment in New York in 1942. One night after work, Ruth is walking down the hallway of her building when a black woman punches her in the face and tells her not to disrespect her. Dennis talks to her later, and she explains that a white woman does not belong here. Dennis calmly tells her to leave his wife alone, and she does. (They are still not married, but they consider themselves husband and wife.) After Tateh’s death, Ruth chooses to stay on the “black side” because that is the only place she can be. The few problems she has with blacks are minimal in comparison to the “grief white folks dished out.” With them it is simple: if she chooses to be with a black man, she is white trash and unacceptable in white society. Most mixed marriages at that time did not last because it was too difficult.
Ruth says her marriage lasted because it had love, God, and a little money. It is never about something as trivial as color; it is about God and nothing more, she says. The early days with Dennis are her glory days. They listen to wonderful music and political speeches; they attend the theater and worship God in a mighty way at church. Dennis teaches Ruth things she never knew. He meditates for fifteen minutes every day; he introduces her to the works of great poets and writers; he talks to her about his heroes of sports, people like Jackie Robinson; he teaches her about food and how to eat, since all she ever knew was the kosher way.
A few months after Tateh dies, Ruth tells Dennis she wants to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She walks down the aisle in church several weeks later when an altar call is given. Later she becomes the church secretary. It is scandalous to her that a deacon in the church and the church secretary are living together out of wedlock, and she insists they get married. Dennis is still hesitant because he can be killed in the South for such a thing. Ruth tells him this is not the South and she will not continue living in sin. Dennis asks her to marry him. His family is thrilled with the news, but Ruth and Dennis want little fuss. They are treated unkindly when they get their marriage license, but that does not dampen their happiness. The reverend marries them quietly and they celebrate quietly with a few friends. They understand the rest of the world wants them to fail, and they are determined to succeed. Ruth is proud to call Dennis her husband, and they never...
(The entire section is 1275 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
In October 1994, New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, the church Andrew McBride founded, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. New Brown is Mother’s home church and the church in which James eventually gets married. James’s father never saw his dreams for New Brown fulfilled, but when James looks through his father’s old, brown briefcase he catches a glimpse of the kind of man his father was. He was a man constantly thinking. The briefcase contains references to many great thinkers and inspirational people as well as notebooks of sermons and Bible verses. James also finds the phone numbers of doctors his father had hoped could help cure his cancer, but of course none of them could. Andrew McBride left no insurance policy or land or money for his pregnant wife and seven children. What he did was “establish the groundwork” for raising the twelve children Ruth is responsible for raising.
At this anniversary gathering, the old-timers say God honored their former pastor. Although he died penniless, Andrew McBride’s children grew up to graduate from college and become professionals—doctors, teachers, and professors. Ruth is sitting at the end of a long table placed on the dais, and hers is the only white face in the room. She did not want to come because the young minister who replaced her husband has done several unforgivable acts, such as removing her husband’s picture from the church vestibule. But she is here, sitting with James’s two-year-old daughter on her lap. After the minister jokes and kids around, Ruth is introduced as the original founder of the church. She is seventy-four years old now, and she makes her way slowly to the podium.
James reflects that her “dark eyes are still full of pep” and thinks she looks ten years younger than she is, thanks to her yoga classes. But his mother has heart disease and high blood pressure; though his physician brothers want her to do something about both conditions, she refuses to take any medication or have any procedures done. She is determined that no hospital is going to take her life, too. She has begun talking as if her time on earth is short, and James does not know what he will do when she dies.
At the podium, Ruth begins stammering through the prepared speech she has written on a crumpled sheet of paper. The words are stiff and formal. Finally she stops and puts her hand over her heart. James is ready to rush the stage; he thinks she is...
(The entire section is 590 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
When James is helping Mother write her will in June 1993—something she does not want to do—they talk about her burial arrangements. She insists she does not want to be buried in New Jersey, though she is now living there with her daughter Kathy. James tells her they will bury her in Virginia, but she says she does not want to go back there. James is sure she will want to be buried next to her first husband in North Carolina, but she is adamant that she has had enough of the South. Although she spent forty years of her life in New York, she says it is too crowded. When pressed, Ruth throws up her hands and says it is all nonsense and “who cares?” Ruth has had a cancerous mole from her face removed, and now she is thinking more about her own mortality. She says death is strange and final. She says that is why people had better get to know Jesus.
James thinks that if it takes as long for him to know Jesus as it has taken him to know his mother, he is in trouble. Part of James’s journey was discovering who he was, not just who his mother was. It took him years to discover himself—mostly because he chose not to look. Throughout his life, when James had to align himself with one race or the other, he invariably chose black. It was easy to hide behind his blackness and ignore the other half of who he is. Later in life he is able to accept that the “white man’s world” is not as free or perfect as it looked to him for most of his life.
After his graduation from Oberlin College and Columbia University, James vacillates between writing and music. He has no real personal life during those years, and he avoids his college sweetheart (a mixed-race woman from Chicago whose mother was black and whose father was Jewish) because he is afraid of committing himself to her. He is afraid their children will be confused, like he has been. James experiences great success as a reporter because he is committed to nothing and no one else; as soon as he soars at a job, though, he quits and moves to the next thing. Mother scolds him about missed opportunities and second chances, and he goes on to be successful somewhere else. He even wins the Stephen Sondheim Award for musical theater composition. He is still restless, though, and finally he realizes that he must find out who his mother is to find out who he really is. This realization begins his journey to find his mother’s family. For eight years, Mother is evasive and...
(The entire section is 619 words.)