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 walks. She is a shy, quiet woman; her children call her Mameh. She is the one person Ruth feels she did “not do right by.”