The Color of Water

The Color of Water Summary and Analysis of Chapters 23-Epilogue

Although Ruth ultimately found her true path in life, she never took the easiest road towards happiness. Some blacks, she explains, never accepted her, and she is aware that most interracial marriages fail because there are too many pressures on interracial couples. In her view, however, the requirements of marriage have nothing to do with race: "See, a marriage needs love. And God. And a little money. That's all. The rest you can deal with. It's not about black or white." In 1942, Ruth became a Christian and joined a Harlem church presided over by Reverend Brown. Those were her "glory years." Dennis "came from a home where kindness was a way of life. I wanted to be in this kind of family. I was proud to join it, and they were happy to have me." Ruth and Dennis finally agreed to marry at New York's City Hall, but arrived there only to be confronted by discrimination. Reverend Brown later married them in his private office at the church, and the ceremony was followed by a lovely reception at a friend's home. Ruth could never go South with Dennis after that; it was too dangerous. In the end, however, she did venture back to bury his body.

Ruth and Dennis's first baby arrived in 1943, and in no time at all they were parents to four children. The family lived for nine years in a one-room, cockroach-riddled apartment in Harlem, but Ruth states that it was the happiest time of her life. Ruth and Dennis put in an application to move to the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, and were given a two-bedroom apartment with its own bathroom. The projects were beautiful then; integrated, with a diverse population: "It was a real American life, the life I'd always dreamed of." She was content: "My soul was full."

Kids dropped "like eggs", but the family was supported by their faith. Dennis found the calling to become a preacher, and graduated from the Shelton Bible School in 1953. He and Ruth founded a church in their living room. Eventually, they rented a building, and the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, named for Reverend Brown, was born. Then, one day in 1957, Dennis came home with a bad cold. The cold escalated into a fever, and he became seriously ill.

Ruth missed her period, and realized that she was pregnant once again. When she told Dennis, who had been admitted to the hospital, he told her to name the child James. After a few weeks in the hospital, Dennis asked Ruth to bring the children by. They stood outside, waving up at his window, and something sank in Ruth's heart. A few days later, a call came while she was at home. Dennis had died of cancer.

Ruth says, "Part of me died when Dennis died. I loved that man more than life itself." It was very hard to let him go, but her burden was lightened by the show of support from the community. When she returned from burying Dennis's body in North Carolina, her mailbox was full of checks, money orders, and cash from their friends and the members of their congregation. Aunt Candis and Jacqueline came to help, but things remained desperate. In the end, Ruth went to her Jewish family for help, only to have Aunt Betsy slam the door in her face. Dee-Dee was in Queens, and her absence was a painful reminder to Ruth that she had broken her promise. The two sisters never spoke again. To the Shilskys, Ruth was dead, and no longer their responsibility. Ruth believes that God responded to her need by sending her Hunter Jordan. Aunt Candis urged her to marry him, and she agreed after his third proposal. If Ruth wed him, Jordan promised, he would take care of her for the rest of his life.

In 1994, New Brown Memorial Baptist Church celebrated its 40th anniversary. The old-timers said that God had honored Reverend McBride by seeing all of his children graduate from college. The new minister, however, forgot to honor Ruth. According to James, "he treated her like an outsider, a foreigner, a white person." In general, Ruth doesn't believe that modern ministers have "vision", having told James, "Now your father, he had vision." Times back then, she believes, made for different men. At the celebration, Ruth attempted to read a speech, but after a couple of tries she put it away and spoke from her heart. She said that the church had begun in her living room, and that she was a witness to God's word. She told James that, in order to be a minister, "You need foresight. And vision. You got vision?"

James next tracked down his mother's friend Frances Moody, now Frances Falcone, whom he found living in Portsmouth. The last time that the two women had seen each other was in 1941, when Ruth threw Frances a wedding shower. James writes: "Her reunion with her old friend is one of the small, beautiful side benefits of a book experience that Mommy was truly never interested in."

As James lists all of his mother's children, along with their education and accomplishments, he states that "Mommy created her own nation, a rainbow coalition." The book closes with a meditation on James's friendship with David Lee Preston, a Jewish reporter and the only son of a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the sewers. David asked James to bring his mother to his wedding, so Ruth attended the ceremony as a guest. She said to her son: "You know that could've been me."


As the book draws to a close, the reader watches as Ruth achieves her dream. After a loveless childhood, she finally married a man she adored, and who loved her passionately in return. Her marriage, in contrast to Mameh's, was one based on open love and affection. When Ruth became a Christian, she became a member of a community defined by love that welcomed her with open arms. The American Dream became real for Ruth McBride when her family moved to Brooklyn.

The reader finally sees how her first marriage came to end, and how quickly Dennis's death came. Her desperate financial situation forced Ruth to approach her Jewish family. While her biological family rejected her, she was surrounded with love and support by her neighbors. They heaped money and food donations upon her, and Aunt Candis and Jacqueline arrived to help her with the children. Everyone, it seems, linked their fates together to create a common destiny and to draw from the strength that is found in numbers. Ruth was offered a second miracle in the arrival of Hunter Jordan. The support that she found in the wake of Dennis's death only heightened Ruth's faith, and when the church celebrated its 40th anniversary, she was able to proclaim that she was a witness to God's word.

The reader also glimpses the early years of James's life in the final section of the book. Ruth first realized that she was pregnant while Dennis was in the hospital, and Dennis named his unborn child "James" just prior to his death. James's earliest memories are of Hunter Jordan, whom he viewed as his real father, and of the knowledge that his father had died before he was born.

The fact that Hunter Jordan asked Ruth to marry him three times is an allusion to the Jewish faith. According to tradition, a person who wishes to become a Jew must be rejected three times in order to test the strength of the person's desire. Hunter Jordan insisted that he wanted to marry Ruth, and that he wanted to help take care of her and all of her children. The fact that Ruth made Hunter ask her three times speaks to the perseverance of the values that were instilled in her during her childhood.

When James observed how the new minister of the New Brown Memorial Church treated his mother as an outsider because she was white, he saw before him the strength - and inaccuracy - of racial stereotypes. On the surface, Ruth could easily be viewed as an outsider in a black church, but in truth she had been one of the church's founders. Her commitment, in other words, was something that she had searched for; her faith lay beneath her skin. Her alliance with the community was not based on the color of her skin, but on her relationship with the community itself. James's description of his mother as a "foreigner" alludes to Ruth's early experiences as an immigrant in America, as well as to the experiences of Mameh.

James's father, according to Ruth, had "vision": he was a remarkable, almost prescient man. "Vision" speaks to forward motion, and the ability to see the future: vision inspires individuals to link their fates together in pursuit of a common goal. A leader assumes the responsibility of expressing a vision that is in the best interest of the community at large. According to Ruth, Dennis had vision where modern ministers do not because the times were different then. The period before and during the Civil Rights Movement required visionaries to come forth to lead the community to justice. When James admits to his mother that he doesn't think he has "vision", the statement is revealed as ironic because in writing the book he displays his own unique vision. By searching his mother's memory and history, James discovered his own origins. Vision is necessary in this endeavor because in order for a story to have resonance, it must look towards the future. By exploring the experiences of his own family in The Color of Water, James reveals how Americans can, collectively, bridge divisions of race and religion. The answers lie in love, community, and the ability to recognize that the substance and the heart of a person are found deep under the skin.

The list of the accomplishments of each of Ruth's twelve children has an almost biblical resonance. Ruth's children prove to be a testament to Ruth's own qualities of perseverance and goodness, and to the spirituality of her first husband. The book closes on the note of James's close friendship with a Jewish reporter because the friendship is based on a mutual understanding between overtly dissimilar individuals: David Lee Preston understands the meaning of Ruth's actions, and James understands the meaning of David's mother's survival. When Ruth attends David's traditional Jewish wedding, she is no longer a "Jew", but has come full-circle to observe the world she left behind, inspiring her to muse about the other life she could have lived. By taking the road that was less traveled, Ruth became an American and achieved an identity that she defined on her own terms.