The Color of Water Summary
The Color of Water is an autobiography by James McBride that alternates between telling his life story and the life story of his mother, Ruth. Ruth ran away from her Jewish family and married James' father, a black man.
Ruth runs away from her overbearing father and renounces her Jewish heritage. She marries Dennis, a black man with whom she has eight children, including James.
After Dennis' death, Ruth remarries and has four children with her second husband.
- Ruth is a demanding and yet loving mother. She dies in 2010, and James dedicates the memoir to her.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
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.”
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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 are about to reach a critical point.
James is terrified of going to school even though it is only eight blocks away. Kindergartners must ride the bus, so he has no siblings to support him. The best part is Mommy walking with him to the bus stop—just him. He has her all to himself as they walk to and from the bus stop each day. It is the first time James remembers “ever being alone” with his mother.
As the year progresses, James’s fear subsides; however, he begins to notice that his mother looks nothing like any of the other kids’ mothers. Not only is she much lighter than they are, but she stands apart from them as they all wait for their children. One day when James asks Ruth why she does not look like the other mothers, she simply states she is not them. When he asks why she does not look like him, she sighs and explains that she does look like him—and that education, not mothers or friends, is what matters. She ends these discussions by telling her son not to follow the other boys; instead, he should follow his siblings and keep family business to himself.
One day as he steps of the bus, James is horrified to see that his mother—usually so noticeable—is not among the waiting crowd. He is panicked. When sympathetic mothers ask him for his address so they can walk him home, James remembers his mother’s warning and tells them he does not know it. He finally spies his siblings and collapses into tears as they gather around him and laugh.
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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.
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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 their family. Ruth does not have time to worry about black power; she works the swing shift (3 P.M. until 2 A.M.) as a typist at Chase Manhattan Bank. Andrew McBride is a Baptist minister and is never quite sure how society will accept his mixed family; because of that, he endeavors to keep his family out of trouble in every way and trusts God to do the rest. When Hunter Jordan joins the family, he does the same. Mother raises her children the only way she knows how: working hard, striving for excellence, distrusting authority figures, and believing in God and education. Money matters little to this household, for money without education is worthless. Ruth believes education is the key to climbing out of poverty, and she is proven right as her children grow and mature.
There is an implicit tension in the household, and it is based on race. Mommy believes white people are inherently evil toward black people, but she sends her children to white schools so they will get the best education. She believes black people are more to be trusted, but she also believes anything associated with blacks is “probably slightly substandard.” Blacks who put on the airs of whites earn her derision; she champions blacks who avail themselves of welfare though she refuses to do so. She is most at home among the working class and is not deterred by their alarm at her presence.
James is surprised at his mother’s ease among black people, for in his experience most whites have a fear of blacks. Even when she is shoved or hissed at or vilified, his mother is able to ignore the behaviors—unless her children are somehow threatened. Then she fights like an alley cat, angry and fearless. Although she is an easy target for muggers and thugs, Ruth is unafraid and does nothing out of the ordinary to protect herself on her long subway rides late at night. She trusts God to fight her battles for her, but James’s faith is not as strong.
On a trip to an inner-city camp, James sees his white mother waving good-bye to him in a crowd of black people. The last boy to get on the bus is the son of a Black Panther, and James is terrified that this boy’s father will somehow hurt his mother. He tries to warn her by shouting out the window, but she cannot hear him. In his frustration and fear, James punches the surprised Black Panther’s son in the face.
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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. Andrew McBride taught her about a loving God who forgave sin and made things new. She was reborn. Being Jewish was not all bad. Ruth enjoys getting everything ready for seder and Passover with her mother; however, every time she looks at the empty seat left for Elijah she wishes she could be gone, too—gone to a place where her father does not come to her bed and interrupt her dreams so she no longer knows if it is really him or just a recurring nightmare.
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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 creates a scene. The minister stammers and sweats and has no response for the persistent boy. Finally Richie insists that if Jesus is not black and He is not white, then He should be gray. That is the last time Richie goes to Sunday School, though he still believes in God.
Every Easter, Ruth takes great pride in having her children recite verses for the Easter program at church. James never has trouble memorizing, but his brother Billy does. One year Billy is on stage, stammering and stuttering his way through his ill-prepared portion of scripture. Finally the deacon tells Billy he can relax and just quote a verse. Billy chooses “Jesus wept,” and there is complete silence in the church. As Ruth’s family is leaving, the deacon chuckles and tells Ruth it is all okay; however, Ruth disagrees. When they arrive home, Ruth “beats Billy’s butt.”
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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.
Father is always hardest on Sam, who is a year older than Ruth. He makes them both study the Old Testament and punishes them severely when they do not perform well enough—especially Sam. Tateh has no patience and expects too much from his son. Sam must work hard and there is little time for anything but the store, which is why he hates it. He has his bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen and leaves several years later. He sends his mother a postcard from Chicago to tell her he got a job as a clerk. He refuses to come back home and dies in World War II, but Ruth is so disconnected from her family that she does not find this out until many years later. There is nothing more she can do for her brother except pray.
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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. What she does not know is that Dennis has also become a civil rights activist; he participates in marches and sit-ins and other such activities. He is at war with the system, but he keeps it away from his mother. Helen, on the other hand, is fighting the same war and brings it home and lays it at her mother’s feet.
Helen is the second-oldest girl in the family. She is beautiful, and all the boys in the neighborhood follow her when she walks anywhere. She is a talented musician and studies at a school for music and art. Helen plays the piano for church services as well. Her feelings about the civil rights movement become more pronounced, and soon she is in full protest mode. One Sunday at church she simply refuses to play any more (so nine-year-old Judy takes her place), and she takes her beating with a belt without a whimper. Next she quits school and gets an even worse beating, during which she cries and promises to change—but no change happens. Mother calls in reinforcements to talk to her, but nothing seems to work. She turns into a full-fledged hippie, extolling the virtues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, alternately. She tries to convince the older kids to fight the system, to fight the Man; they laugh at her and tease her, but the discussions continue.
One night James and his younger sister Kathy hear a tremendous crash and go to see what is happening. Serious fights are rare in this family, but this is a serious fight. Helen is in a battle with their oldest female sibling, Rosetta. Rosetta is a force of terror in their home, and even Dennis gives her plenty of room to maneuver. There is crashing and swearing, and James knows it serious because swearing is never allowed in their home. Soon Helen storms out of the house, saying she hates everything and everyone in this place.
All the children wait up for Mother, so she knows something is wrong as soon as she arrives home from work. The kids have to convince her that they tried to make Helen stay, but mother is heartbroken. When Helen does not return for several days, Ruth calls the police and files a missing persons report. The police search the neighborhood, but there is no sign of her. Finally Jack, the sister everyone likes, calls Ruth and tells her Helen is with her. She warns her mother to let things rest a bit and hopes the anger will dissipate; however, Ruth cannot wait and sends a son to go bring Helen home. He comes home without Helen, and a few days later Helen leaves Jack’s apartment.
No one hears from her for weeks, and mother is inconsolable. After several months, Jack calls to say she found her. Helen is staying in a house with some crazy hippie woman, and Ruth goes immediately to convince her to come home. After she bangs on the door and asks for Helen, the peephole opens. Ruth sees her daughter’s black eye, and then the peephole slides closed.
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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.
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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 well as a subway pass and a free lunch coupon; even the smallest of them knows the transportation system well. James attends a school that is an hour and a half away from his home, and many days he is late because one or both of his buses was delayed.
James and his siblings are unlike most black students in the days before busing blacks to white schools became the norm. They are often the only students of color in their classes—sometimes even their schools. They take great care to represent themselves in an exemplary fashion but they still sometimes got undeserved low marks and both public and private taunts. James is more shy than many of his siblings are, and he takes the taunts without saying a word in his own defense. Music and books save James from sheer misery in school. He is able to lose himself in great classic works of both literature and music. He also creates an imaginary world for himself. Most people assume he will make something of himself one day because he is light skinned, has curly rather than nappy hair, is smart, reads a lot, plays music well, and (according to the girls) is cute. But none of his personal role models (relatives and those close to his family) or the heroes he sees in movies look like him.
One afternoon James corners his mother and asks her what a “tragic mulatto” is. Ruth immediately flares with anger and asks her son where he heard that term. He stammers that he read it in a book, but Mother is convinced someone called him that. She tells him never to use that term, and James asks her if he is black or white. Her answer is that he is human, and if he does not educate himself he will be a nobody. James is still confused and questions his siblings about their racial identity. They are no help and simply pick on their younger brother as usual.
Ruth feeds her children on music, art, and books rather than food. She takes them to every free event the city has to offer. They visit the free dental clinic twice a year, and they swim in the public swimming pools. But the insulated world Ruth creates eventually begins to crumble as her children fan out into the world as teenagers and college students. Helen, who left home at fifteen, comes home five years later with a baby girl and a nursing degree. One by one the others break the house rules: one disappears to Europe; one has a child out of wedlock; one gets married, divorced, and wrongly arrested on drug charges. The arrest experience causes Ruth to bear down on her younger children; despite the chaos of their home, they eat, do homework, and sleep in a set routine.
If any of her children get out of line, Ruth is not averse to drawing on any and all family resources to reign them back in and put them back on the right path. It occurs to James that his mother only ever contacts relatives on his father’s side of the family. When he asks about her relatives, Ruth is evasive and finally says she is dead to her family because they did not want her “to marry on the black side.” James knows this is an important admission; if she were black, her family would not have disowned her. However, when he makes his point, his mother simply ignores his observation.
James once loved doing things and going places with his mother; by the time he is ten, though, he is ashamed and embarrassed by her. He becomes secretive, angry, cautious, and fearful, and he always hopes she will not show up when he is with his friends. If anyone calls her a “honky,” he knows he will have to defend her; he also knows he will probably lose any such fight. After a visit to the local grocery store (whose owner clearly dislikes black children), James brings home a carton of milk that his mother discovers is sour. When she forces him to return it, the man refuses to accept the opened container. This time she goes with her son to the store, and a battle ensues. Gawkers snicker as Ruth and the owner fight over the carton of sour milk. She realizes the man is not going to give in, so Ruth and James prepare to leave the store. As they do, the store’s owner mutters something James does not hear, but Mother and the crowd do, and she turns abruptly around and throws the milk all over the man and the cigarette display behind him.
James struggles to understand so much anger and thinks life would be much easier if his family were only one race. He is proud to be black, so he would prefer it if his mother were black. Later in his life, though, he is thankful to have grown up in both worlds and grows angry at injustices shown to either blacks or Jews. But as a child, he wishes he could just attend a black school like all the other children in his neighborhood.
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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 black and white couple has ever been allowed to be together. He is afraid, and this makes Ruth even more fearful. Ruth is relieved that no other white person knows her secret, but she learns there is one person who knows. One night Peter and Ruth are arguing behind the store and Ruth drops her bracelet on the ground. She looks for it the next day, but it is not there. Several days later, while Ruth is working behind the counter at the store, Mameh limps in and places the bracelet on the counter without saying a word. Once she assumes her usual place in the corner by the vegetables, Mameh suggests Ruth go to New York for the summer to visit her grandmother.
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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 his things. Three years later, Hunter suffers a stroke.
James is fourteen and has no idea what a stroke is; however, he knows he is free to do what he likes while his mother spends her time at the hospital. When James finally sees Hunter, he is moved to tears as he sees the dramatic changes in this formerly strong and capable man. Hunter does eventually come home, and he is better. One day he asks James to help him get dressed because he wants to go for a drive one last time; however, he is too weak to drive once he is behind the wheel. James and Hunter talk as they never have before. Hunter tells James that he must take care of his mother and his younger siblings because he is the oldest child still living at home. James knows Hunter is going to die.
Two days later, Hunter suffers a relapse and dies. Mother wails and wails while James and the other children weep in silence.
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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.
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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 promised his father to be the responsible oldest child; instead he sees the bills pile up and the house fall into disrepair. Ruth sends very spare dollar to the children who are in college and grad school. To make his own money, James becomes a thief and does drugs on the side. He and his buddies steal purses and money from dope dealers. James is sorry for the things he is doing, but he is not sorry enough to stop his criminal behavior. He is numb and feels he is somehow getting retribution for all the wrongs that had been done him by society—though if he had to name any specific wrongs, he would not have been able to do so.
James takes great care to keep his punk life from his mother. He steals blank report cards from the school library and asks his sister Kathy to fill in his grades in case Mother recognizes his handwriting. Kathy fills in all the blanks with the grade of C, which prompts her mother to call the school to see why her son has slipped from being an A student. Ruth is shocked at what the school tells her, but she knows James is beyond punishing. Instead she enrolls him in summer school, from which he gets dismissed. His older siblings admonish and even beat him when they come home from college, but he is unmoved. Finally Ruth sends him to her oldest daughter’s house in Louisville, Kentucky.
James loves his sister Jack and does not see his exile as punishment. He adores Jack’s husband, Big Richard, and James spends much of his time with his street-smart brother-in-law. James understands that if he brings home a gun or other trouble, his sister will make sure it never happens again. James and Richard hang out regularly on “the Corner” near the Vermont Liquor Store. Here James gets his true street education. Although these friends of Big Richard’s drink much of the day, they are honorable men with a code of ethics by which they live. James’s favorite is an old drunk named Chicken Man. When he is sober, Chicken Man is the chief philosopher (and giver of sweets to children) of the Corner; however, when he is drunk he is nearly incoherent. The men on the Corner pay little attention to the white people around them. They are neither afraid of nor do they dislike the police. They allow James to sit on the Corner while he smokes weed and plays his flute. It is a place where James’s problems seem far away and no one knows anything about him or his family. It is perfect.
James does a bit of stealing with a man named Fred, but Fred tells him he needs to do something more honest. Fred is going to get him a job in a “turd factory,” a place where turds flow down a stream and he has to sort the little ones from the big ones. James is thrilled at the prospect of a steady job and steady income. When James gets a job, it is at a gas station about a mile from the Corner. His boss, Herman, is huge and mean, so James does his best to avoid any trouble with him. When James eventually gets fired, he asks Chicken Man for some advice. “Forget it” is what he is told, and then the street-corner philosopher gives James a stern lecture. He admonishes the boy to stay in school unless he wants to become a dropout who stands on the Corner all his life. He reminds James that no one is going to seek him out because he is just not that special.
Chicken Man’s words have very little impact at the time, and James continues in his old ways. There is an argument between a man and his woman, and everyone on the Corner knows to stay away when there is the threat of a gunfight and trouble. Chicken Man tells James never to get in an argument with a woman—it is too dangerous. Not long after that he fails to heed his own advice. He and the woman argue early in the day, and then Chicken Man goes on with his life and forgets the argument ever happened. Later the woman comes into the liquor store and stabs Chicken Man while he is in line waiting to buy a beer. He coughs a few times, then he lies down and dies.
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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 Ruth has no marriage prospects, so he begins to “display” her to all the merchants with whom he does business in hopes of attracting one of their sons.
Tateh finally gives in and gives Ruth the money for her cap and gown but forbids her to enter the Gentile church. Ruth knows her parents will not attend the Gentile graduation ceremony, so she is prepared to disobey her father. In the end, though, Frances sits through the commencement alone; with tears on her face, Ruth simply cannot walk into the church. She walks home, sobbing in her cap and gown. The next day Ruth gets on a Greyhound bus bound for New York.
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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 her: the dissipation of her Jewish family; the guilt of leaving her mother virtually alone with a cruel and loveless man; the separation from her sister Dee-Dee; the sudden, tragic death of her first husband whom she adored. Even in his own self-absorbed and hazy mind, James knows his mother is teetering on the brink of sanity. She does not fall; instead, she keeps moving, almost frenetically. Ruth rides her bicycle, plays the piano, and takes long bus rides to do nothing but window shop. Just as she has done for most of her life, Ruth runs. This time she is running to keep her sanity.
The household runs normally, but even the simplest decisions take enormous deliberation from Ruth; often, nothing gets done at all. She is disorganized beyond any previous disorganization, and it only gets worse when one of her only friends dies. Irene Johnson was a “wonderful black woman,” and Ruth is inconsolable in her grief. Even though Irene had been there to help Ruth through her most difficult days, Ruth refuses to attend her memorial service—she says she is done with funerals. The one mainstay in her confused life is Jesus. The Jewish girl who could not bear to even walk into a Gentile church now finds her refuge there. When she is no longer able to force her children to attend with her, Ruth goes alone and comes home somehow refreshed and renewed—until the Saturday when she wants to learn how to drive.
She puts the car in gear and they all go careening through the neighborhood, heedless of stop signs and oncoming traffic. This wild ride, with Ruth shrieking and hollering all the way, temporarily ends at the A and P, where Ruth gets out and leaves the engine running. When she returns, she nearly injures her granddaughter when she suddenly stomps on the brakes. They all sit in the car quietly until Ruth, gasping for breath, says she quits and drives slowly home. The car sits in front of the house again for months.
Ruth did once know how to drive a car—when she was eighteen she drove her father’s Ford and could pull a trailer full of supplies for the store. Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car, but Ruth McBride Jordan cannot.
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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 white people’s hair. She is in Harlem now, and her first customer is a black woman. Ruth mauls the poor woman’s hair and loses her job in the same day. She settles in at the Hi Hat Barbershop as a manicurist making fifteen dollars a week.
Ruth’s boss, Rocky, soon begins to hang around near her table, and one day he asks to take her to lunch. He has plans for his new manicurist, and they begin to unfold. Rocky takes her to the theater and to movies and to clubs. They meet some pimps and prostitutes, and Rocky seems to know them all. He is solicitous of Ruth; he often drives her all the way to her grandmother’s house in the Bronx. Eventually he sets her up in an apartment nearby so she will not have to make that long journey twice a day, and Ruth figures out his plan to make her a prostitute. At first she does not object to it. It has become difficult to keep up pretenses with Bubeh. Although her grandmother does not sense any trouble, Ruth feels guilty because Bubeh reminds her of who she is and where she came from; she must break away and live exclusively in Harlem. That move will take money.
Ruth asks Rocky how she can make money like the girls she has seen, for she wants fancy dresses and to go to cool places. Because Ruth knows nothing of love, this seems like a simple move, but Rocky says she is not ready yet. Ruth begins to miss her mother and sister. She wonders how they are and how she can find out how they are doing. She remembers how to find Dennis from her aunt’s factory and asks him to find out for her how her family is. He tells her they are looking for her, and then he asks how she is doing. When she tells him all about her life and her friend Rocky, Dennis’s face shows disapproval and disappointment. Ruth feels ashamed.
Dennis explains that Rocky is a pimp who has nefarious plans for her, and Ruth is struck by the disappointment in his voice and on his face. She determines to go straight back to Bubeh’s, and she evades her grandmother’s questions about where she has been and what she has been doing. Rocky pursues her and tries to make contact with her, but Ruth stands firm and eventually he stops trying to reach her.
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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 her children are getting. She immediately tries to get James enrolled in private schools; however, because he was such a poor student last year, James is not accepted into any of them. Instead, James and two of his sisters attend an all-black public high school and like it just fine.
James stays away from the wrong crowd and concentrates on his music; he is even selected to travel to Europe with the American Youth Jazz Band. The Dawsons, a well-to-do couple who have invested in inner-city kids for years, pay for his trip. The price for the gift is working at their home on weekends and over the summer. James combs down his afro, puts on a suit, and carries trays of hors d’oeuvres around to their guests. James is not angry about the arrangement, but it fuels a “burning ambition” in him to do more in life than stand around at parties and socialize. James is a terrible butler, but he is thankful he is not fired. The Dawsons expose him to classical literature and composers with which he has never come in contact before now. James also has to work outside on the large estate, but he is slothful and avoids the dirty work when he can. Finally Mrs. Dawson fires him. She still pays for him to go to Europe, but the firing inspires James to better things. Years later, when James is a student at Oberlin College, he receives a letter from Mrs. Dawson that tells him her husband died suddenly of cancer. When his friends are vilifying all rich white people, James agrees; inside, though, he hurts at the lie he just told.
During his final year of high school, James realizes he wants to attend college to study music and he wants to get out of Delaware. His mother wants out as well; she is miserable here. It is a miracle that James gets accepted to Oberlin College, a fantastic liberal arts college and music conservatory. Ruth brags about his acceptance to everyone she meets. James is the eighth child she sends to college, and many of them have gone on to graduate school as well. At the bus station that September, Ruth empties her purse of dollar bills and change to buy her son’s bus ticket to Ohio. As he leaves, she slips some money in his hand and tells him it is everything she has. When he looks later, he sees it is only fourteen dollars.
James feels a bit guilty about leaving because he knows his mother wants to leave and he is the one who originally convinced her to stay. He understands that Mother has always pushed her children away to make them independent and adventurous. When one of them wanted to stay close to home, she pushed them farther away and told them they would get in trouble here and needed to go learn to live on their own. That does not mean she was ever happy to see them leave. Each time one of her children moves away, Ruth spends time in her room crying, but she never lets them see her tears. After she gives James a wave from the bus platform, he sees her lean against a brick wall with her head bowed and one hand squeezing her eyes as if her tears can be “squeezed into oblivion.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
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 bedrooms and share a kitchen and a bathroom with their landlords. Ruth has finally left home, and it was easy. Dennis continues to work for Aunt Mary while he and Ruth are living together, and she never knows it. It is all rather scandalous.
Ruth still misses her mother and sister. One day she feels she must call Mameh, so she gathers her coins and finds a pay phone. Tateh answers the phone and tells her he needs her back at the store because her mother is sick. Ruth feels compelled to go to Suffolk. Dennis says he will write her and send her money, and he does. When she arrives, Ruth clearly tells her father she is only staying for a while, but he ignores her. One of the first things he does is take her to meet a Jewish merchant’s fat son, but Ruth has no intention of marrying anyone her father suggests. Mameh is ill but still does her household chores faithfully. Her husband feels free to ridicule her, slap her, curse her, and even be bold in his unfaithfulness to her. When Ruth still lived at home, Tateh began seeing a fat, Gentile woman with children. “Mr. Rabbi” would leave on Friday nights, leaving his wife and daughters to the Sabbath rituals, and come home Monday asking for the money they made at the store. He eventually moved his other woman within an hour’s drive and began pestering Ruth to help him get a divorce. Mameh refused, for she knew that as a middle-aged, crippled, sick Jewish woman, she had virtually no options. She did not even have a friend in Suffolk the entire time they lived there. After years of requesting a divorce and being denied, Tateh goes to Reno, Nevada, and gets what he wants. They are divorced, but things at home are the same.
Dee-Dee is not like Ruth. She is confident and talented and well accepted by her peers at school; at home, though, she has it the worst of them all. She is proud and self-sufficient, but after Ruth has been home several weeks Dee-Dee asks her sister not to leave. Ruth knows she should stay for both her sister’s and her mother’s sakes, but she cannot do it. She tells Dee-Dee she will think about it, and Dee-Dee makes her promise to stay. Ruth promises but breaks her promise soon after. Dee-Dee never forgets this, and she reminds Ruth of it many years later.
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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 Rachel, a name James has never heard connected to his mother before. Eddie knew the entire family. Rachel (Ruth) was the kindhearted one. Gladys (Dee-Dee) was the youngest and looked like her father. Sam (they called him Sparky) was killed in World War II in a plane crash. Mrs. Shilsky was crippled but a very nice lady; she would slip a bit of candy or a piece of fruit to customers when her husband was not looking. Mr. Shilsky was another matter, and Eddie is reluctant to say much more to James because this is his grandfather. James pushes, and Eddie says James will find it difficult to find anyone who will say something nice about him. He disliked blacks and cheated them in every possible way; he even shot one in the stomach for fussing around in his store. Even his wife was afraid of him. When James asks how he knows all this, Eddie tells him he lived so close he could practically see into the man’s house from his bedroom. James asks what happened to his grandfather; Eddie tells him he ran off with “one of the sorriest, trashiest, poor-as-Job’s-turkey white women you ever did see.” How they got together no one knows, but she was so large that Shilsky looked like a boy walking along next to her. James asks where they went, and Eddie says maybe Richmond. James says he would like to find his grandfather, and Eddie tells him he knows where he can be found—and points to the ground, winking.
Eddie says it has been a long time since Rachel just walked away, and he would like to talk to her if possible. James dials Ruth’s number, and she and Eddie talk for a few moments. She remembers him. Then Eddie pauses, listens, and asks if Rachel is crying.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
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 there. Dennis is the one who shakes her out of it; he reminds her that God forgives all sins, even the most dreaded sins. Ruth does not believe it for a long time. She carries her mother’s passport with her everywhere. She did not think her mother was dying when she left Suffolk, but her mother must have known. Ruth begins attending church with Dennis and needs the “Christian way” to let Mameh go and forgive herself. Her Jewishness died the day Mameh died.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700
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 tape recorder. He also promised James he would try to find a picture of the old store to show him next time he visits. Rubenstein told him to go to the nearby slaughterhouse, for the Jaffes would like to see him in person. James remembered that name. The Jaffes owned the slaughterhouse near his grandfather’s store; this is where he would go to butcher cattle in the kosher manner. Like most Jews, the Jaffes treated him in a warm and welcoming manner—something James always found when he met Jews and always found it both odd and amazing.
James sits on the steps and realizes he has already discovered whatever it is he has been looking for all these years. He goes to the McDonald’s and walks the parking lot, hoping the earth will speak to him, but it is silent. That night James stays in a motel down the road; at four in the morning he sits straight up and knows he has been awakened by something. After tossing and turning for an hour, he dresses and walks along the wharf. He feels lonely, and he recognizes that his grandmother and mother must both have felt lonely here in this place. The feeling is so heavy James has to sit down and cover his face. The uncertainty inside him begins to dissipate, and he knows he has moved from a kind of death to life. He leaves for New York, content in knowing his grandmother’s suffering and death has not been wasted.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
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 spend a night apart except when he takes the children South to see his family. Ruth does not go South with Dennis, for it is too dangerous for him. The only trip to the South she makes with her husband is when she takes his body there to be buried.
Their family grows fast, and soon they are living with their four children in a one-bedroom apartment. They put their name on the long waiting list for an apartment in the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn. God makes a way for them, and they are given a two-bedroom apartment—with a bathroom. That is a great blessing. The walls and floors are all cement, so things break and children get scrapes; however, it is a place of great diversity and acceptance. Ruth kisses Dennis as he leaves for work; the children cling to his legs when he arrives home. Her soul is full.
Now they have seven children, and Dennis feels he is called to be a preacher. He goes to Bible college and they invite people in the project to their house for prayer. Soon there is no more room, and Dennis wants to find a church building. Ruth supports him but has no idea where he will get the money; they can barely feed and clothe their family as it is. Dennis finds a building but the owner will not lease it to a black man, so Ruth leases it from him. When the man sees Dennis and Ruth together, painting the building in preparation for their first service, he demands his money back, but it is too late. When the church is running sixty regular members, they move to another building—one with heat. All goes well here until early in 1957, when Dennis comes home from work with a sore throat.
Dennis always smoked unfiltered cigarettes, so he was often hoarse. It is also January and the church is cold, so Ruth is not particularly concerned by her husband’s hoarseness. Soon, though, he is running a fever and cannot get out of bed, and she takes him to the hospital. He becomes seriously ill very quickly, and none of the doctors seem to know what is wrong with him. It is a stressful time, and Ruth and her children just want Dennis to come home. They miss him. Amid the stress, Ruth realizes she might be pregnant. When she tells Dennis, he says if it is a boy they will call him James after his Uncle Jim. At the time, Ruth had no idea her husband was going to die, but now she believes Dennis must have known and wanted to give his son that legacy before passing.
Dennis always tells his wife that God will provide if anything happens to him, that the Lord will take care of them. Ruth makes him stop when he talks that way. The staff is blatantly rude and unkind to Ruth because she is married to a black man. When Dennis wants her to bring the children up to see him, Ruth says she does not think it is a good idea. Instead she brings them so he can see them outside his second-floor window. She gets a horrible feeling in her heart and prays that God will spare her husband’s life. A few days later he dies.
The call from the hospital is terse, and Ruth hears for the first time that her husband died of cancer. It is a difficult time for her after that. She is thirty-six years old (and had been with Dennis for sixteen of those years), has seven children (with an eighth on the way), and misses her husband desperately. She has never functioned without him. Aunt Candis and the oldest daughter, Jack, help Ruth through the burial service in New York. On the train ride to North Carolina, she mourns her loss, but once the funeral service is over she knows she must go back home.
When she opens her mailbox for the first time, she finds checks, money orders, and cash from people in the projects and from people in their church in Harlem. People bring them food, and the company Dennis worked for sends money as well. Even with this outpouring and help from family members, Ruth and her family still struggle. Ruth gets desperate enough to contact her Jewish family for help. When she goes to her Aunt Betts’s fancy building, her aunt shuts the door in her face. When she calls Dee-Dee, Ruth is reminded that she broke her promise and her sister will not speak to her again. Her family is dead to her, but Ruth knows she is not alone, for God is still with her. He gives her (and her children) another good man. Hunter Jordan comes into their lives and is a loving husband, father, and provider for as long as he lives.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590
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 having a heart attack. Instead, she begins to speak simply and from the heart. She explains the church’s simple beginnings and early struggles, and she says she only wants them to know one thing. She struggles for composure, but the crowd encourages her. She takes a deep breath and says:
I want you to know you are looking at a witness of God’s word. It’s real. It’s real!
A chorus of “amens” follows her to her seat, and there are tears everywhere in the room. On the way home, James teases her about the young preacher, and she tells her son to leave him alone; the church is lucky to have a young preacher the way things are these days. She says they need a man with vision. She asks James if he has vision. When he says he does not think so, she tells him that if he does not have vision he had better not waste God’s time.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
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 uncooperative when James tries to garner information from her, but when he finally gets the name Shilsky, the journey begins.
Ruth has moved from the philosophy of keeping everything in the family to “it doesn’t matter.” She earns a college degree in social work from Temple University at the age of sixty-five. Her life is filled with interesting and satisfying things and people. Finally, after being away for more than fifty years, Ruth returns to Suffolk, Virginia. She is pensive at all she sees. James also finally locates his mother’s only real friend from Suffolk. Frances is now living in Portsmouth, and they go visit her. Their friendship is renewed and lasts for many years.
Ruth’s children are all successful and extraordinary leaders, and the family remains close. The entire family piles into their mother’s home at Thanksgiving and Christmas, a rainbow of humanity sleeping anywhere there is room. Ruth is still queen of her family.
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