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.