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.