Chapter 19: The Promise

Ruth talks about the first stages of her romance with James's father, Dennis, a North Carolinian violinist. Dennis and Ruth found a room on 129th Street and lived there together. When Dennis first introduced Ruth to his family and friends, her race shocked them, but they were welcoming to her nonetheless. Mameh became sick, and Ruth temporarily returned to Suffolk to help out. Tateh became involved in an affair with a woman who lived nearby, and even took occasional lengthy trips out of town with her, leaving the running of the store to his wife and daughters. Tateh's behavior disgusted Ruth. Tateh repeatedly tried to get his wife to sign divorce papers, but she refused. In Reno, Nevada, Tateh got a divorce, but essentially nothing changed in his household. Ruth had always been jealous of her younger sister Dee-Dee for her good looks, her position of favor with Tateh, and her more Americanized identity. However, later on in life, Ruth came to realize that Dee-Dee was put in a difficult position, being the youngest child left at home alone with her parents. Although she was a proud girl, Dee-Dee pleaded with Ruth to come back and live in Virginia. Ruth promised her she would, later breaking that promise and creating a painful tension between Dee-Dee and herself.

Chapter 20: Old Man Shilsky

James took a road trip down South to seek out his mother's past. He had just broken up with his girlfriend Karone. He had also reached a moment of indecision regarding his career, in part due to his confusion about his own racial identity. In Suffolk, Virginia, he sought to uncover the origins of his mother's family. He wanted to understand his mother's past, and then understand his own. Armed with only the location of his mother's old house, and her best friend's first name, Frances, James headed into town. In the former location of Shilsky's store, he found a McDonald's. He knocked on the door of the house behind McDonald's, and sixty-six year old Eddie Thompson answered. When James inquired about the Shilsky family and informed Eddie that he had descended from them, it took a few moments for Eddie to stop laughing. He recalled the Shilsky family, and recounted his memories of each of them, noting in particular Old Man Shilsky's mean-spiritedness and poor treatment of his family. James asked Eddie to call Ruth, who remembered Eddie and reacted with tears. Later that night, James walked down to the river.

Chapter 21: A Bird Who Flies

Ruth recalls the day Bubeh died, leaving Mameh devastated. Ruth's parents and sister pleaded with Ruth to stay. Dee-Dee stopped speaking with her after she insisted on leaving. Her father was particularly persistent in asking her to stay, and Ruth fought bitterly with him. He accused her of running off to marry a black man, warning her that if she did she should never come home again. Ruth had no idea, then or ever, how he knew this. She returned to New York, discovering on the bus ride that her mother had left her Polish passport in Ruth's bag lunch. It remains the only picture Ruth has of Mameh. When Dennis reported that he heard Mameh had been admitted to a Bronx hospital, Ruth was anxious to visit her, but her Aunt Mary discouraged her, reminding her of her break with her family. A few days later her mother died. Ruth struggled with her death and the sense of guilt she felt at abandoning her. Ruth found strength from Dennis, and from her newfound affinity with Christianity. Ruth recalls that when they killed chickens on Yom Kippur, Mameh reassured Ruth that since the chicken was not "a bird who flies," it was acceptable to kill it, emphasizing that one should never trap a bird that flies. Mameh loved birds and used to feed them and sing to them, then shoo them away, singing in Yiddish, "birdie, birdie, fly away."

Analysis: Chapters 19–21

When Dee-Dee asks Ruth to promise she will return to Suffolk, there is a rare desperation in her voice. Her pleading sounds like a call for help. Dee-Dee wants to be rescued from the emotional wasteland that is her parent's household, but Ruth is afraid that if she stays to help her sister, she will be trapped in a miserable life.

When James went to see Shilsky's Store in Suffolk, Virginia, in its place he found a McDonald's. The site of his mother's childhood had been replaced by an impersonal, generic chain store. James, looking for an evocation of the past, could not find it at his mother's vanished store. Only later, when he walked down to the river in the middle of the night, did he feel a remarkable connection to the past in that place.

When Eddie Thompson picks up the phone and talks to Ruth after so much time has passed, his voice is an overwhelming reminder of a significant part of her life that she has left permanently. The emotion of the moment overcomes her.

Ruth's relatives, convinced of the finality of her separation from her family, discouraged Ruth from attempting to see her mother when she lay dying. Her family still considered her "dead", and even the death of a loved mother could not bring them back together. Ruth makes comments throughout the memoir about the way Christianity has allowed her to feel absolved of her guilt surrounding her Jewish family. She cites Christianity's forgiveness of sins as something that drew her to the faith in early adulthood.

Ruth vividly captures the image of her crippled mother playing with birds and singing to them "birdie, birdie, fly away." This snapshot is poignant, and also symbolic. Mameh's warning never to catch "a bird who flies" seems connected to Ruth's frequent wanderlust. Ruth is like a bird who flies and should not be caught. To Ruth, Mameh symbolized immobility and hopelessness. Mameh was physically immobile as a result of the polio that left her crippled, and emotionally immobile because of Tateh's poor treatment of her.