The Color of Water opens with the words of the narrator James's mother Ruth, who describes her early life with her family. Born with the Jewish name Ruchel Dwarja Aylska on April 1, 1921, Ruth was born into a Polish Orthodox Jewish family. Ruth explains that she has become, in her words, "dead" to her family as a result of her marriage to Andrew Dennis McBride, James's African-American father. Ruth describes her father, Tateh, (the Yiddish word for father). Tateh was an Orthodox rabbi named Fishel Shilsky. Ruth says he was as "hard as a rock." Her sweet-tempered mother, Hudis Shilsky, or Mameh to Ruth, wed Tateh in an arranged marriage. Mamah never felt love or affection from Tateh. Mameh was mild and meek, in part as a result of polio, from which she suffered her entire life.
This chapter is named after Ruth's habit of riding her bicycle through the all- black neighborhood in which James and his family lived. She began this habit after her second husband died of a stroke. Her second husband, Hunter Jordan, was father to four of Ruth's twelve children. James knew Hunter as "Daddy." The whole family bitterly mourned Hunter's death. Teenaged James began failing his classes and turned to drugs and crime, while Ruth fulfilled her need for constant movement by riding her bicycle. To James, this bicycle symbolized Ruth's quirkiness, and his own embarrassment. James had always sensed his mother was different, although in his early life he was not sure why she was different. Issues of race appeared in various manifestations throughout James's upbringing. In this chapter, James recalls how when he was in kindergarten, he asked hi mother, "How come you don't look like me?" Ruth gave him a dismissive and indirect response. Only later in life did he realize that his mother marginalized issues of race and identity in favor of the "nuts and bolts" of raising twelve children.
Ruth describes her parents' arranged marriage. Her father was able to come to America as a result of his wife's higher class. Having witnessed the Russian soldiers' devastation of Polish Jews, Mameh was particularly happy to immigrate to the United States when Ruth was two years old and her older brother Sam four years old. Ruth describes what she found to be the suffocating strictness and specific rules of Orthodox Judaism. She recalls her grandparents Bubeh and Zaydeh with fondness. They also immigrated to the United States. When her grandfather Zaydeh died, Ruth was very young. She explains that she thinks her lifelong, profound fear of death comes in part from her family's response to death, which was to repress any mention of it.
Ruth's account of her childhood includes the explanation of her bitter separation from her family, which explains her later avoidance of the topic of her family. Even in her contributions to this book, Ruth is at times reluctant to rehash her painful past.
In the second chapter, James introduces his own voice. By describing his mother's oddities, which are both charming and embarrassing, he establishes her difference from his parents' friends and other adult peers. In this chapter, James first states one of the purposes of this memoir: to seek explanations for his mother's behavior in the events in her life.
The author utilizes the bicycle his mother rides as a symbol of her difference. She does not care or even notice what others think of her unusual habit of bicycle riding. She also rides it because she loves movement. Movement allows her to escape from reality. She allows a chaotic household so that movement will distract her children from worrying about race, and help them learn how to be useful members of society.
James establishes a respectful tone toward his mother early in the book. Although he says that at times she mortified him with her eccentricities and strict standards, James paints a portrait of his mother as a tough but big- hearted woman. He makes it clear that she was dealing in the best way she could with the tremendous adversities of the life she chose for herself. James pays tribute to her with this memoir, and attests to her strength of character.
In the beginning of the memoir, James establishes the narrative pattern that will persist throughout. He weaves his own narrative voice with his mother's observations and stories. He arranges the chapters so that the reader is learning about both mother and son at the same age in their lives. This pattern enables him to tell two stories at once. James recounts significant events in his upbringing, and comments on their implications. The chapters that highlight Ruth's voice delve into her past life. While the narratives are divided, however, one of the themes of the memoir is the interwoven nature of these two lives, of this mother and son. Therefore, James's approach to this memoir demonstrates not only a clever and engaging form, but also a realization that to understand the present, one must understand the past.
While The Color of Water follows a loosely chronological path in recounting James's and Ruth's lives, the author does not strictly follow chronology. Rather, James jumps back and forth in time, relating events to themes. He does not simply tell the story of his past, but incorporates his feelings and retrospective thoughts into the events.