The Color of Water

The Color of Water Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-16

Mameh, aware that Ruth was pregnant, sent her to New York to stay with her well-to-do family: "my mother's family, they didn't say a lot to you. They would always take care of you in a basic way but they never said a lot to you. I didn't feel loved by them." Her Aunt Betsy, the youngest of the sisters, was living with Bubeh at that time, working as the bookkeeper of a lingerie store on the East Side. She was beautiful, like all of the sisters, and intuitive, immediately sensing that something was wrong with Ruth. Ruth told her about the pregnancy, and Aunt Betsy located a Jewish doctor who agreed to perform the abortion (without anesthesia). After the procedure Ruth felt very ashamed, and apologized profusely to her aunt. Years later, Aunt Betsy slammed the door in Ruth's face, but Ruth never faulted her: "They were all trying hard to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind."

When Hunter Jordan died, it took Ruth a long time to recover from her grief. James remembers feeling that "the fire was gone." He was finally the "king" of the house - the eldest - but his grades dropped, and he began spending as much time away from home as possible, joining a band, getting drunk and high with his new friends, and narrowly escaping arrest. His mother tried to whip him into shape, but failed. In the end, as the house fell into disrepair, Ruth sent him to stay with Jacqueline in Kentucky for the summer.

In Louisville, James hung out on "the Corner" with the "cool" southern working men who gathered to sip whiskey and play crap games. He befriended Chicken Man, "one of the chief philosophers of the Corner." James was called "New York": no one knew of his past or his mother, and he finally felt free to be himself. It was in Louisville that James acquired his "street education". When Chicken Man finally sat him down and said: "Everybody on this corner is smart. You ain't no smarter than anybody here. If you so smart, why you got to come on this corner every summer? 'Cause you flunkin' school! You think if you drop out of school somebody's gonna beg you to go back? Hell no!...If you want to drop out of school and shoot people and hang on this corner all your life, go ahead! It's your life!" Later, Chicken Man was stabbed to death by a former lover.

While Ruth was in New York during the summer of her abortion, she enrolled in a girls' school. She didn't want to return home, but the school was too hard, and she went back to Suffolk only to learn that Peter had gotten another girl - the black girl - pregnant. Upon learning that Peter had decided to marry the black girl, Ruth became angry and refused to talk to him ever again. In the meantime, she began planning to leave for New York after graduation, although she felt guilty about abandoning Mameh: "I was her eyes and ears in America." Mameh was also suffering from fainting spells, and Tateh didn't care about her, though Mameh was always a good Jewish wife to him. Ruth states: "a wife wants love."

Tateh refused to allow Ruth to attend her graduation ceremony, which was held inside a Protestant church. She and Frances marched in the ceremony, and Ruth was determined to go into the church, but when the crucial moment came, she just couldn't do it: "In my heart I was still a Jew. I had done some wrong things in my life, but I was still my parents' child." The next day, she caught a Greyhound bus for New York.

In 1973, James was living at home while his mother tried to learn how to drive. That year, Jack said to him: "You have to choose between what the world expects of you and what you want for yourself." He didn't change overnight, but as he watched his mother go through hell, he realized that "she did not fall." Her best friend Irene, a black woman, passed away, and his mother refused to attend the memorial service. She was done with funerals, she said. She was determined to learn how to drive a car, something that scared the hell out of James. He notes the interesting fact that as eighteen-year-old Rachel Shilsky in Suffolk, his mother had known how to drive perfectly. That girl, however, was dead, and Ruth McBride Jordan couldn't drive.


The memoir creates a parallel between Ruth's visits to New York and James's visits to Louisville, Kentucky. Mameh was fully aware of Ruth's pregnancy and her general unhappiness in Suffolk, so she sent her to New York to stay with her family. Ruth later sent James to see his "Aunt" Jacqueline because she knew that he loved her, and also knew that he was having difficulty coping with Hunter Jordan's death. Leaving the place in which one was born and raised in order to escape what one has become, Ruth understood, can inspire one to pursue the American Dream and undergo a rebirth. Ruth appears to have understood that being too close to home could prove detrimental to one's ability to imagine other lives and avenues for growth. When Ruth began going to New York for the summers, she was able to imagine a life for herself there. Though she couldn't keep up with the school in New York, she was nonetheless able to imagine physically moving there, finding work, and living a life outside of Suffolk. The new environment inspired her to imagine the possibilities of who she might become.

Ruth also understood that the instability of their home life after Hunter Jordan's death required James to gain a different perspective. Part of her motivation for sending him to Louisville was to ensure that another influence he respected - Jacqueline - would be accessible to him for a significant period of time. While in Louisville, James could be himself in another context; people didn't know his past. According to James, he received his real "street education" there. On "the Corner", Chicken Man advised him to go to school and to make something of himself, seeming to regret not having done so himself. Education, he emphasized, is valuable; it creates opportunities. He told James that everyone on the Corner was smart, but that smarts don't mean anything without education. Intelligence can't be deployed in the world without a formal education that teaches one how to use it to achieve concrete goals. James needed to hear this truth come from someone other than his mother and the people who had been telling him this all his life. To have a man he respected as "street-smart" and "cool" tell him that he was failing prompted his decision to seek a fresh start.

The reader learns that Ruth's Aunt Betsy successfully helped Ruth get an abortion, but also that Aunt Betsy later slammed the door in her face. This helps the memoir gain momentum by offering the reader a glimpse of the future, sparking a desire to know how this event actually came to be. Why did Ruth approach her aunt, and what did she request that caused the formerly open-minded woman to reject her so completely?

In the wake of Hunter Jordan's death, James coped with his grief by rebelling against his mother, getting drunk, letting his grades fall, shoplifting, and getting high. Deaths in this memoir, however, are often followed by rebirth. The reader thus intimates that James will change, and that the difficulty of this period will ultimately cause him to grow into a stronger young man than he might have otherwise been. The same can also be said about the strength that Ruth developed as a consequence of her difficult past.

Romantic relationships also come under the spotlight in this section. When Ruth returned to Suffolk after the abortion, it became clear to her that "love" was not at the center of her relationship with Peter, despite the fact that she had said that she loved him. The marriage between Mameh and Tateh was regrettably not one of love, which prompts Ruth to state that a wife desires "love". She witnessed the lovelessness of her parents' marriage, but refused to allow the same thing to happen to her. Her happiness upon marrying Dennis is understandable: their marriage was one based entirely on mutual love.

The theme of identity surfaces again during Ruth's graduation ceremony. Despite Ruth's desire to disobey her parents, she found that she simply couldn't step into the Protestant church. This reveals her psychic confinement in Suffolk; in her parents' town, she was unable to escape her inherited identity. In New York, by contrast, she was able to successfully cast off the undesirable parts of her heritage.

As James observed his mother trying to learn how to drive, the irony of the attempt highlights Ruth's figurative death and rebirth. As a girl in Suffolk, she had known how to drive perfectly, but as Ruth McBride Jordan, the mother of twelve, she no longer knew how to drive. Ruth's mother's identity underwent a kind of death when she left Suffolk, lost her mother, and married. James's motivation for writing the book is to recover a sense of his mother's former identity, in order for him to better understand who she was and is, thus giving him a fuller awareness of himself. While death signals a new beginning, it does not negate the fact of the life that has been lived.