The Color of Water

The Color of Water Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20-22

In November of 1982, James experienced an identity crisis that manifested in his career. He bounced from one reporting job to another, and became intensely frustrated with his mother: "It had gotten to the point where I didn't see why she made such a secret of it." He visited Suffolk in search of Tateh's store, only to find a McDonald's where it had once stood. In Suffolk, he met a 66-year-old black man named Eddie Thompson who still remembered the Shilskys. James's mother's name, Eddie told James, was called "Rachel" back then. This was the first time that James had ever heard his mother's former name. Eddie told him that he remembered Ruth's mother, who was crippled: a nice lady who always slipped them fruit and candy when her husband wasn't looking. As for the Rabbi, he had run off with an enormous woman with whom he was having an affair; this was particularly humorous because Shilsky was such a diminutive man. Rachel, Eddie recalled, just disappeared one day. Eddie decided that he wanted to talk to her and called her long-distance. When she heard his voice and the memories it brought back, Ruth began crying.

In the summer of 1941, before Ruth returned to New York, a letter arrived from Mameh's sisters stating that they had three rooms worth of extra furniture. It was their way of saying that Bubeh had died. Mameh couldn't read the letter because it had been intended for Tateh and was thus written in English, but late that night Ruth read it aloud to her. Mameh never said a word at the time; later, though, Ruth heard her mother weeping: a sound that she would never forget.

As Ruth readied herself to return to New York, Dee-Dee became angry with her for having broken her promise. Mameh tried to convince her to stay, as well, but in the end Ruth stood firm. Mameh packed her a bag lunch. As she waited for the bus, Tateh pulled up in his car and said that she should stay, because he needed her help with the store. Her mother, he said, needed her as well. Ruth refused, and they began to argue. In the end, Tateh told her that if she married a black man, she would never be welcome home again. Ruth never learned how her father had found out about Peter. On the bus, when she opened her bag lunch, she found her mother's Polish passport. The passport photo is the only image Ruth has of her mother.

Back in New York, Ruth found a job at a glass factory in Chelsea. One day in 1942, Dennis came home from the leather factory and told her that Mameh was sick, and in a Bronx hospital. Ruth called her Aunt Mary, but she told her to stay away. The family had sat shiva for Ruth; she was dead to them. A few days later, while she was at work, Dennis called her to say that Mameh had passed away. It took a long time for Ruth to pull herself out of her grief. Dennis told her that she had to forgive herself, and Ruth knew that her mother had given her the passport because she had been aware that she was dying. Dennis talked to her about God, and said that she would be forgiven. She started going to the Metropolitan Church in Harlem, where Reverend Brown was the well-loved minister. Ruth says, "that's when I started to become a Christian and the Jew in me began to die." She then describes an incident when Mameh was waving a live chicken over her head, and told Ruth that death to the chicken would give her life, and that a bird that wasn't able to fly wasn't special anyway.

In 1992, James stood in front of the synagogue in Suffolk, contemplating the fact that his blood ran through this place. Hudis Shilsky, he discovered, was buried in a Long Island graveyard. Sam Shilsky had died in 1944 while in the service. He traced the Rabbi to a Brooklyn address in the 1960s, but, after that, he had vanished. Dee-Dee had also vanished from Suffolk; she withdrew from school one semester short of graduating, just before Mameh's death. James knew he could probably find her, but didn't have the heart to reopen old wounds. In the state building, James met Aubrey Rubinstein, a man in his early sixties. His father had taken over Shilsky's store in 1942, when the Rabbi had left town. He said that most Jews had eventually left Suffolk to make their lives elsewhere.

James spent the night in a motel in town, but woke in the middle of the night. Alone, he walked out to the river, where he experienced something of his grandmother's loneliness.


When James begins to describe his adult life, he illustrates how much of his indecision about his career path was rooted in a fundamental confusion about his personal identity. His visit to Suffolk marks the beginning of his writing project, along with the journey to discover the girl his mother had been growing up. The fact that Shilsky's store has been replaced by a McDonald's is ironic, and echoes how Hunter Jordan's beloved brownstone had been torn down to become an empty lot. As time passes and people pass and things are covered over, it becomes apparent how easily forgetfulness sets in.

On his journey to Suffolk, however, James met several people who did remember his mother as a girl, as well as her family. The story that Eddie Thompson told James about Mameh, who used to slip them candy and fruit, corroborates the image of Ruth's mother as a good woman. His words also support Ruth's contentions about how people viewed the Rabbi: with suspicion and dislike. James's interactions with individuals from his mother's past only add depth to his mother's story.

The theme of death and rebirth resurfaces with Ruth's two intense experiences of death. Mameh's passing is prefaced by the death of Bubeh. Ruth claims that she can still hear the sound of Mameh weeping in the night, like a ghost. This weeping contrasts with Ruth's howling when Dennis gave her the news of Mameh's passing. While describing her grief, Ruth tells the story of Mameh with the chicken. Mameh once told her that a bird that couldn't fly wasn't all that special, and that a chicken's death only fosters continued life; the implication is that Mameh was a bird who couldn't fly, and was thus not special.

Chicken Man, who stood on "the Corner" in Louisville, was another bird that couldn't fly. James learned many lessons about life from Chicken Man's unfortunate fate, which prompted his commitment to a fresh start in Wilmington. With Mameh's death, Ruth, who had already taken steps to assume a life of her own choosing, began the difficult road to recovery and release. Ruth explicitly states that when Mameh died, the Jew in her died as well, and she found that she was able to step willingly into a Harlem church, something she wasn't able to do on her graduation day in Suffolk. The image of "flying" connotes both physical and spiritual liberation.

While James underwent a rebirth into a conscientious, serious student, Ruth was reborn into Christianity. Shortly before her mother's death, she learned that the family had sat shiva for her, and that she had figuratively "died" in the eyes of the Jewish community, as well as in the eyes of her family. Her rebirth in Christianity gave her the spiritual infrastructure to cope with her mother's death, and enabled her to ground herself in a new community that espoused love and support.

When James revisited Suffolk and found the synagogue where his grandfather had been a rabbi, he mused about how black men are usually associated with violence, and not with synagogues. The ironic gesture deepens the reader's skepticism when it comes to the usual stereotypes of religion and race. James also highlights how the core of the family splintered by gesturing to the various directions in which the members of the family "flew" after Mameh's death.

James's nocturnal experience, in which he walks to the river in the middle of the night and experiences the loneliness that he imagines his grandmother must have felt, is a poignant and deeply emotional moment in the book. It shows how, through the process of learning about his mother's history, he has become familiar with his grandmother's experience of isolation in America on a visceral, potent level. As an immigrant and outsider who couldn't speak the native language and lived in a small, Southern town with a husband who didn't love her, Mameh was entirely powerless. Her powerlessness can be likened to the experiences of other racial groups and ethnic minorities, who face similar difficulties in America. Some even say that the American Dream, for many, is merely a myth. However, while Hudis Shilsky may not have lived the Dream during her lifetime, she was able to "fly" in the end. By writing down his mother's (and grandmother's) story, James grants the long-suffering women immortality and a voice.