I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt.
This quote, from near the end of the book, comes from James's description of the gap between how he imagined it would be to write this memoir, and how it actually felt to write the memoir. He says here that his own life is inextricably bound up with his mother's; when he rethinks her life, he necessarily rethinks his own. This sentiment echoes one of the main themes of the book: to understand the present, one must be familiar with the past. Ruth's inconsistencies, quirks, and life philosophies are a bit of a mystery before James understands her history. However, when James hears first-hand accounts of his mother's trials and successes, he realized that what he had regarded as eccentricity was in fact the manifestation of a determined woman's adaptation to her world, her own personal negotiation of past and present.
[T]he greatest sin a person can do to another is to take away that life. Next to that, all the rule and religions in the world are secondary; mere words and beliefs that people choose to believe and kill and hate by. My life won't be lived that way, and neither, I hope, will my children's. I left for New York happy in the knowledge that my grandmother had not suffered and died for nothing.
James speaks these words after he wakes up in the middle of the night in his motel room in Suffolk, Virginia, his mother's hometown. He is restless and cannot seem to find what he thought he was looking for. He wanders down to the Nansemond River to gaze into the night, and sweeping emotions overtake him. What follows is one of the most moving passages in the book. In this moment, James celebrates his past. He may be closer to it than he is at any other point in the book.
Mameh's sisters were more about money than anything else, and any hurts that popped up along the way, they just swept them under the rug. They were all trying hard to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind.
Here Ruth explains how she views her aunts' philosophies on life, and their emphasis on wealth. She makes the astute observation that their ethos may have been the result of the pressures of immigration and Americanization. Mameh's sisters, like Ruth and James after them, were attempting to juggle past and present and somehow reconcile the new with the old.
I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn't want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.
Here James muses on the particular difficulty of being biracial. He says that he underwent a complete attitude transformation during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. He went from resenting his mother's race to feeling blessed to have come from a mixed race union. When James was a child, he knew nothing about his mother's Jewish background, and his siblings' fostered in him a resentful attitude toward whites. As a result, he found his mother's whiteness problematic. When he grew older, however, and became more aware of the state of race relations in the country and in his family, he began to accept and eventually appreciate his dual racial identity.
You know death was always around Suffolk, always around. It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off.
Here Ruth discusses her upbringing in Suffolk, Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s, when racial tensions reached a fever pitch. She captures a particular quality of the South in this statement—the covert nature of death and hate that lay beneath sugarcoated Southern manners. This disgust at the South and at the Southern way of hiding menace with smiles remains with Ruth, who stills refuses to set foot in the South except for brief visits.