The Color of Water
James reflects upon his, and his siblings', early conceptions about Judaism. They were not familiar with this element of their mother's background, and they had only vague impressions, and often misconceptions, of Judaism. However, James comments that at times his mother's attitudes consciously or unconsciously reflected her upbringing. For example, her absolute insistence on the importance of education meant that James and his siblings often commuted long hours in order to receive the best possible schooling, mostly in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. As a consequence, James and his siblings were often the sole black students in school, and suffered from the prejudice of the white world.
James discovered jazz during this period of life, embracing it as an escape from painful realities. He continued to try to resolve the quagmire of his race, frequently with frustrating results. His mother dodged the issue, occupying her children with free cultural and artistic activities in the city. However, as the sixties brought racial tensions to the fore, James's family was forced to face matters of race and identity. James's brother Richie was arrested for a crime he did not commit, in an example of the racism of that time. James continually questioned his mother about his relatives, but she only mentioned those on his father's side, and eventually informed him that she was "dead" to her family. James felt embarrassed by his mother's race, and believed life would be easier if his family were one color. At school, his white classmates urged him to dance, assuming that because he was dark-skinned he could dance, despite the fact that James's horrible dancing was a family joke. When he finally agreed to dance, he was filled with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, his classmates' approval reassured him, but on the other hand, he recognized that condescension tainted their approval.
Ruth recounts her relationship with a black boy named Peter. Because of the racism of the South, Ruth and Peter had to meet secretly. The constant threat of violence came mostly from the Ku Klux Klan, although Ruth explains that most white Southerners shared the violently racist attitudes of the Ku Klux Klan. When Ruth became pregnant with Peter's child, she did not dare tell any white people. Her mother had found her bracelet in Ruth and Peter's secret meeting place, silently placed the bracelet in front of her daughter, and suggested that Ruth go to New York for the summer. Although she and her mother never spoke of her situation, Ruth felt deeply grateful that her mother had chosen to keep the secret and acknowledge Ruth's need to leave town.
James's biological father, Andrew McBride, died when Ruth was still pregnant with James. Therefore, James always regarded his strong and good-natured stepfather Hunter Jordan as his father, calling him Daddy. Hunter worked as a furnace fireman for the New York City Housing Authority, and adopted the eight children from Ruth's previous marriage. Hunter used his life's savings to buy a house in St. Albans, Queens, but he chose to live by himself during the workweek in his Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment. The city later tore down his beloved brownstone in order to build a housing project, which devastated Hunter. James fondly recalls his family's road trips down South with Hunter's brothers Walter and Henry. Hunter suffered from a stroke during James's adolescence. After Hunter came home from the hospital, he spoke one-on-one with James in a rare moment of intimacy and expression, urging him to take good care of Ruth and his siblings. Two days later he had a relapse and died.
Ruth's parents possessed a strong work ethic, which had a profound influence on Ruth's approach to both employment and education. Ruth resented her father's demands that she work at the family store during every spare moment. Ruth believed that her own children should experience more freedom that she did. However, she accorded with her parents' belief in the value of hard work, which she passed on to her children by reinforcement and example. When Ruth cut all ties with her family, she supported herself through various jobs, most of them difficult and poorly paid. Because she could no longer rely on her parents, she developed admirable self-sufficiency. Later on, after her first husband's death, she found herself the sole breadwinner for her children. She held down a night job, taking long subway rides home in the middle of the night. She encouraged her children to embrace discipline and diligence from a young age. James and his siblings had summer jobs and after-school jobs, and as they grew up, Ruth had high expectations for their careers. She supported them when they were performing well and let them know if she thought they were squandering opportunities.
Perhaps even more than she valued hard work, Ruth embraced education, not only as the means to a successful life ,but as the path to liberation. An education allows the freedom to determine one's own path. Ruth grew up in a repressive environment and consequently valued freedom for herself and her children. She had learned through her own trials that one cannot rely on others, for they may not remain in your life. For these reasons she wished to instill the value of independence in her children. Ruth also advocated a serious commitment to education simply based on its inherent value. Ruth was active in every way. Accordingly, she did not tolerate physical, spiritual, or mental laziness. Although motherhood and the constant need to support her family left Ruth no time to attend college in her younger years, Ruth worked toward her degree in social work when she reached her sixties. In fact, James specifically comments on her enthusiasm upon returning to school, and her excitement at reading and writing.
In Ruth's emotional description of her relationship with her mother, we can sense her love for Mameh, and the painful irresolution of their last encounters. Her mother's unspoken but generous understanding and acceptance of Ruth's pregnancy demonstrates Mameh's loyalty to Ruth and her effort to ensure that her daughter's life was an improvement on her own. Mameh's kindness toward her daughter made Ruth feel guilty that she did not do more to take care of Mameh.
Although Hunter Jordan was not James's biological father, James grew up regarding Hunter as his father. Ruth was James's primary caretaker, but Hunter spent a significant amount of time with all of Ruth's children. While James's mother was a more forceful personality, his stepfather reinforced her insistence on work, school, and God.