The juxtaposition of old and new worlds, of past and present, prompts James to write his memoir. He wants to understand the present and future by understanding the past. Both Ruth and James struggle to strike a compromise between past and present. Both want to hold on to certain parts of their young lives, and both wish to forget others. Ruth must reconcile her immigrant cultural heritage and religious background with her association with black people and with her Christian faith. Both James and Ruth wish to pay their respects to their pasts, and perhaps learn from them, but ultimately want to move on and find their own, new way of living that is not restricted by the legacies of early family life.
Both James and Ruth are subject to varying degrees of prejudice in their lives. Ruth endured exclusion and ridicule as a Jew living in the South, and later as a white woman living in black neighborhoods during the black power movement. Growing up, James witnessed the unjust stereotyping and harsh treatment of black people in his family and his neighborhood. Both Ruth and James hold prejudices of their own—James's inherited from the political rhetoric of his adolescence and by his siblings' example—but both learn, as they mature, to avoid excluding others simply because of race or religion.
Ruth's work ethic served her well when she seeks jobs upon arriving in New York City. She instills this emphasis on work and education in her children, each of whom completes his or her bachelors degree and progresses toward some sort of professional career. Ruth conveys to her children the importance of self- sufficiency. After being suffocated by the strict rules of family and religion as a girl, Ruth naturally cherishes the freedom that education and independence provide.
Secrets and mysteries appear again and again in this memoir. For much of James's childhood, he knew little to nothing of his mother's background. Ruth simply discouraged him from his intense curiosity. When Ruth became pregnant in Suffolk by her boyfriend Peter, she told only Peter, keeping her pregnancy a secret from her family. Ruth has no idea why two of her mother's sisters have not spoken for decades; their syndrome is kept secret. Ruth also kept the secret of Tateh's sexual abuse of her. These secrets from the past live in the present, haunting Ruth and complicating her relationship with her family.
Through James's narrative technique of weaving his own life story in and out of his mother's story allows us to learn about the lives of mother and son in the context of both stories. James also parallels the story of his mother's young adulthood with the story of his own young adulthood, manipulating time so that we can compare Ruth and James at similar ages. This also allows us to see how Ruth's approach to parenting differs from her parents' approach. We can see exactly how Ruth determined to be different from her parents, and which of her parents' ways she found valuable and worth repeating.
Ruth experienced several brands of alienation while living in Suffolk. First, she felt alienated from her family and her religion. Her town and classmates also alienated her, since she was not accepted socially. After her separation from her family, which was final and heartbreaking, Ruth was alienated from them in an exaggerated way: she was "dead" to them. Ruth experienced prejudice and hardship in New York as well, but there she had a sense of solidarity with the black communities of Harlem where she and Dennis lived. Her daily interactions with her community members, as well as with her parish members, allowed Ruth to feel like part of a group in a way she never had before, although she remained an essentially private person. Ruth recalls the kindness her neighbors and friends expressed when her first husband, Dennis, died. Not only did they prepare dinners for her and her family, they were generous with sharing clothing and money to try to help Ruth in supporting her children.
James is on an emotional journey of self discovery, but he also uses the tools he has acquired as a journalist to investigate his mother's past. However, he leaves objectivity aside when her story relates particularly closely to him. At times, we sense his attempt to impose logic or objectivity on to a situation, only to be surprised by the intensity of his feeling. This is particularly the case in the series of interviews James holds with his mother. James explains in one of the last chapters of the book that he had planned a very specific process for these interviews with her. When she deviated from that agenda, though, he was swept up into her stories and history. This tension between objectivity and emotion exists throughout the memoir.
After her second husband died, Ruth began the habit of riding her bicycle through the all-black neighborhood in which James and his family lived. To James, this bicycle symbolized her quirkiness and his consequent embarrassment. James had always sensed his mother was "different." During his childhood, James sought logic for his mother's eccentricities. As he grew older, James gained an intimate knowledge of his mother and began to understand her as a fellow adult rather than as a son. The author comes to view the bicycle as symbolic of his mother's difference. She rides it oblivious to others' opinions. The bicycle also comes to represent Ruth's desire to embrace movement as both a means of negotiating reality and an escape from reality. In James's chaotic household, a flurry of activity and movement was the standard state of affairs. His mother kept her twelve children constantly active so that they would learn how to be productive members of society, and so that they would not dwell on the difficulties of being biracial in America.
Ruth recalls that when her family killed chickens on Yom Kippur, her mother reassured her that since the chicken was not "a bird who flies," it was acceptable to kill it. Mameh loved birds and used to feed them and sing to them, then shoo them away, singing in Yiddish, "birdie, birdie, fly away." Ruth vividly captures the image of her crippled mother, left immobile after a bout with polio, singing to winged birds. Mameh's warning never to catch "a bird who flies" seems connected to Ruth's wanderlust. Ruth became a bird that flew. Ruth saw her mother as a symbol of immobility and hopelessness.
Black Power was the name of one of the racecars that the older boys rode when James was a teenager. Sleek, fast, and appealing, Black Power attracted everyone on the street. The general concept of black power during the 1960s represented something very frightening to James, who was still a child at the time. He felt that black power would be his mother's downfall, and that she was in constant danger from its proponents.