The Color of Water
Chapter 22—A Jew Discovered
James continued his exploration of Suffolk, locating the synagogue his mother's family had attended. Although James most likely could have found Ruth's sister Dee-Dee, he felt that to do so only would have introduced more pain into her life. However, he did want to enter the synagogue, both to come to terms with his Jewish roots and to be able to tell his children about those roots. The rabbi at the synagogue knew of the Shilsky family, but gave a curt response to James's request for additional information. James met instead with Aubrey Rubenstein, whose father had taken over the Shilsky's store when Ruth's father left town. Aubrey used James's tape recorder to send a greeting to Ruth, but James never played it for her, thinking it might be too painful. During his last night in Suffolk, James awoke in the middle of the night in his motel room. He walked down to the Nansemond River, where a penetrating loneliness enveloped him. The burden of the past fell upon him and he felt the acute pain his grandmother Hudis must have endured in Suffolk. Juxtaposed with this sadness, he experienced a desire to embrace life and humanity. James returned to New York, recognizing that in this appreciation of life, beyond "all the rules and religions in the world," he paid silent tribute to his grandmother.
Ruth recounts the harassment she and Dennis endured as an interracial couple in 1940s Harlem. Dennis and Ruth attended Metropolitan Baptist Church, the parish of their favorite preacher, Rev. Abner Brown. Ruth made a decision to fully embrace the Christian faith and became very active at the church. Although she and Dennis had been living together, they were not legally married. In a small ceremony in Rev. Brown's church office, Ruth and Dennis were joined in marriage. They lived in one room for nine straight years. They had four children. Ruth recalls those nine years as the happiest of her life. During this time, she became friends with a white Jewish woman named Lily, a Communist who later insulted Ruth and never spoke to her again. Dennis and Ruth established the New Brown Memorial Church after Dennis received his divinity degree in 1953. Four years later, Dennis became seriously ill. While he was sick, Ruth discovered she was pregnant with their eighth child, James. Dennis died in a matter of months, and only after his death did Ruth learn that the cause of death was lung cancer. Ruth went through an incredibly difficult time after Dennis's death, both emotionally and financially. Her community was tremendously kind, but their assistance simply did not provide enough. In desperation, Ruth even contacted her Jewish family for help, but Aunt Betsy slammed the door in her face and Dee-Dee reminded her of her broken promise to return home, and refused to talk to her. Ruth then met her second husband, Hunter, who promised to take care of her and remained true to his word.
Chapter 24—New Brown
In 1994, New Brown Memorial Church held a fortieth anniversary gala, at which Ruth and James were present. Despite Ruth's feelings that the church had changed in negative ways, and that her first husband had been the best Reverend for the parish, she decided to speak at the event. She discarded her prepared speech in favor of an energetic speech recounting her husband's original vision for their church and attesting to the power of the word of God.
James's night walk down to Nansemond River paints one of the most intense images in the entire book. He identified with his grandmother, vividly imagining what it must have been like to live her life. He could almost feel the loneliness of her life weigh down on him. James's thoughts were bittersweet, however, for her recalled not only Mameh's pain, but her strength and her goodness, which were carried on through her children and grandchildren. It seems that in all of James's involvement with the past, including interviews with his mother and the people she knew, and searches through family records, James experienced the closest connection to his past in this moment by the river. It allowed him to pay tribute to his past and to move past it.
Ruth's involvement with the church brought on an entirely new period of her life, and her conversion to Christianity transformed her perspective. Ruth glowingly describes the years that she and Dennis spent in Harlem having kids and running their own church. She experienced a newfound sense of community. A loner in her childhood, Ruth first felt unified with other groups of people through her activities in her church and her community. Her description makes it clear that Ruth considers these years the prime of her life, the happiest time despite the family's poverty.