The Color of Water: Summary of Chapter 16-20
Summary of Chapter 16: Driving
James tells the story of how in 1973, his mother woke him and said they were going to learn how to drive. She took Hunter’s gold Pontiac and asked James to help her. She had never driven because of the convenience of the New York transit system. For his part, James is starting to turn around because of Chicken Man’s advice. He could see that the street life was not carefree but “ragged and cruel” (p. 161). He turns to God and goes back to school. He prays to be rid of anger, and he changes but comes off the drugs slowly.
It takes his mother ten years to get over Hunter’s death, but she keeps moving. Every time a close friend or family member dies, Ruth teeters on the edge of a breakdown but manages to pull herself together again. The only thing she clings to is Jesus. She attends New Brown Memorial Church in Brooklyn, the church she started with her preacher husband, Dennis.
Ruth fails to learn to drive Hunter’s car, and James reflects on the irony of this. She knew how to drive in Suffolk, for she drove her father’s 1936 Ford and pulled a trailer behind it hauling goods for the grocery store. “Rachel” could drive, but “Ruth” couldn’t.
Commentary on Chapter 16: Driving
Again this chapter reflects on the complete disconnect in Ruth’s mind between her early life and her present life. She once worked like a man in her father’s store, but after being a wife and mother for most of her life, she falls apart without a husband in the house. Eventually Ruth remembers she is capable again, but it takes her a while to stand on her own feet. Her attempts to lift herself up parallel her son’s taking his life in his hands. The family legacy is not about defeat.
Summary of Chapter 17: Lost in Harlem
Ruth continues telling about her life. After high school, she returns to New York and works in Aunt Mary’s leather factory and stays with Bubeh. The family helps Ruth out, but the situation has changed. They tolerate her, but Aunt Mary works her very hard. Her factory makes shoes for the rich and famous. Her husband Isaac is the shoemaker, but Mary runs the factory and wears the pants. She is having an affair with her best friend’s husband.
Around 1939 Mary hires Andrew (Dennis) McBride, a black violinist from North Carolina. Dennis is Aunt Mary’s best worker. Dennis sees Aunt Mary’s treatment of Ruth and is kind and supporting to her. He is kind to everyone. At the moment though, she is caught up in discovering Harlem, the playground of New York for both whites and blacks.
She says, “Harlem was like magic” (p. 171). She goes to the theaters and hears all the famous bands. She quits Aunt Mary’s and tries to find a job in Harlem as a theater usher or ticket clerk. When she approaches a movie theater, the man asks what she is doing there. He thinks she is a white prostitute looking for work. Ruth is naïve, and next tries to work in a beauty parlor. She does not know how to give perms to black women and ruins a patron’s hair. She sees barbershops with signs, “Manicurist wanted,” and had heard the tips were good. She is hired by a black man named Rocky in the Hi Hat Barbershop. She works in the window of the shop doing manicures and then begins to go out with Rocky. Ruth says, “I was a dumb small-town girl,” (p. 174) wanting the high life of New York. Rocky shows her around and gets her own apartment. He shows her prostitutes working on the street and says he will tell her about them soon. Then she understands what is going on, but she doesn’t object at first. She stops seeing her grandmother, because it reminds her too much of her past.
Ruth only has the idea of being a hip swinger with money and asks Rocky when she can start to earn money like the others. He says she is not ready yet. Wondering how her mother and sister are, Ruth tracks down Dennis and asks him to listen for news at the factory. He reports that they are all looking for her, wondering where she is. She tells Dennis what she has been doing, and he makes her feel ashamed of what she has almost gotten herself into. He explains the guy is a pimp, and he is trying to control her. She goes back to her grandmother’s.
Commentary on Chapter 17: Lost in Harlem
This is a surprising turn to Ruth’s story. She was almost willing to be a prostitute, not really understanding what it meant. She is intoxicated with the fast life of Harlem and the glamour. Again, this phase of her life mirrors her son’s fascination with the life of the street and the idea of rebellion, glamour, and easy money. They are both shown that what might seem to be an easy path would end in ruin. Dennis says to Ruth, “your parents haven’t done nothing to you that was so bad as to make you run around with that man” (p. 176). James similarly has to reflect on his anger and desire to be in the street, taking his revenge on the world. The revenge or rebellion primarily destroys the life of the rebel. Ruth thought she would make a jump from complete structure and rules to the freedom of Harlem. As happens with her son James, she is allowed a vision of this street life, but she is pulled back from it in the nick of time. Dennis is her future husband, a good man, who becomes the major influence in her life, though he never tries to control her.
Summary of Chapter 18: Lost in Delaware
This chapter, in James’s voice, explains their move to Delaware in 1974. Ruth is trying to support five children at home by herself, while seven children are in college or graduate school and cannot help her. The boys want to move. James feels he needs a fresh start. The girls do not want to leave their friends in Queens, but Ruth cannot afford to stay in New York. The family debates going or staying but finally packs up and leaves. Ruth moves to Wilmington, Delaware, because she has an old Harlem friend there.
In Wilmington they feel lost. There is no subway, and the bus stops running at 9 p.m. Wilmington is a suburban land of shopping malls. The racial segregation is shocking to the Jordans, with the whites fleeing the inner city, and the African Americans stuck there with inferior schools. Ruth begins to feel she is in the South again. Once a policeman stops them for making an illegal U-turn, and the driver, David, then a doctoral student at Columbia, is hauled into night court. When the judge asks him if he is guilty. Ruth makes a big scene to get him out of there and wants to move back to New York. James, however, talks his mother out of the move. The police were not trying to hassle them, he argues.
Ruth panics easily because she is now fifty-four and a single parent living off a pension and social security. James says, “Prayer turned her around” (p. 182). Ruth begins to get her old fire back, buys a car and gets a driver’s license within two weeks. She tries to get James into a private school on scholarship. James flunks the interview because he had missed a lot of school and wasn’t up to the standard. He does not mind going to the all-black Du Pont High School with his younger sisters.
James stays away from gangs and focuses on music—tenor sax and trombone—under the direction of his black music teacher, C. Lawler Rogers, who inspires him to stop the drinking and drugs. He plays in the marching band. The schoolwork is easy, and he goes to Europe with the American Youth Jazz Band. James is able to go to Europe because of the financial support of David and Ann Dawson, a rich white couple who help inner city kids. To pay them back, James works on their estate during the summer. He becomes a butler and gardener and makes friends with Mrs. Dawson, who turns him on to literature and classical music. They read poetry together. He keeps in touch with her, and she helps him through college and graduate school as well.
James is surprised to get accepted at Oberlin College for the music program because of low SAT scores, but he has talent. He worries that he is abandoning his mother when he leaves in 1975, because she is unhappy in Delaware.
Commentary of Chapter 18: Lost in Delaware
This is a hard time in Ruth’s life, for she has no money or companionship. James is finding himself but feels guilty for leaving her behind. The racism issues are worse in Delaware in that there is de facto segregation with the whites in the suburb and the African Americans in the inner city. It is Ruth who wants the superior schools for her children. James had often said he wished he could have attended a black school instead of being the “token black” in an all-white school. He does well at the black high school and at college studying something he loves. As he leaves on the bus for college, he looks out the window and sees his mother crying.
Ruth is outraged when her son David is taken to court for a traffic violation, thinking he is being harassed by the police. She is sensitive to race issues even when she doesn’t want to discuss them. The children are finding their own ways in the world, however, and she does not need to do such fierce battle for them as she did before.
The friendship with the Dawsons is a boon to James, and it helps to break down the polarity in his thinking about race. They are white, sincere, and helpful. When he hears a black student putting down all white people, he thinks of the kindness of the Dawsons and of Ann’s pain at losing her husband to cancer. He sees the Dawsons as human beings.
Summary of Chapter 19: The Promise
Ruth’s narrative continues with her break from Rocky. She decides she is finished with the fast life and gets a job as a waitress in a diner. Dennis calls her, and they begin going out. Dennis is serious and thoughtful, unlike other men she has met in Harlem. He was a violinist from North Carolina and wanted to pursue music in New York. He composes, sings, and wanted to be in an orchestra, but they wouldn’t hire a black man in those days. Friends from his hometown saved him from starving by giving him a room until he gets a job at Aunt Mary’s factory. It was 1940 and although New York was more tolerant than Virginia, it was still unusual for blacks and whites to go together in the open. Dennis was a serious person and a Christian, and so were his friends, and it was a serious matter for them to be seen together, but his friends welcomed Ruth.
Dennis understands Ruth and sees through her, and she falls in love with him. She wants to get married, but he convinces her to live together as though married in secret, because “the world isn’t ready for us yet” (p. 196). She leaves Bubeh’s to move in with Dennis and never goes back to her grandmother’s house. Dennis still works for Aunt Mary, but she does not know about their arrangement.
Ruth begins to miss her mother and sister, and one day she calls home to Suffolk. Her father picks up the phone and tells her to come home; her mother is sick. She tells Dennis she is going home for a few weeks, and he writes to her and sends her money there. Her father tries to marry her off to a Jewish man, but she ignores him. Her father abuses her mother and disappears with another woman, a big fat white woman who is not Jewish. He wants a divorce, but Hudis won’t give one because she will have nothing. Her father has left his religion, gets a divorce in Reno and marries the other woman. Ruth’s mother and sister are suffering, and they know Ruth wants to go back to New York.
Dee-Dee, the younger sister, is “the first American in my family,” pretty, smart, and not rebellious (p. 200). Dee-Dee, then fifteen, begs Rachel to stay with her. Rachel is moved, and promises to stay, but she breaks her promise, and Dee-Dee never lets her forget it.
Commentary on Chapter 19: The Promise
Ruth has moved on in her life and is beginning her relationship with Dennis, the love of her life. Her family pulls at her, because they need her for different reasons. The father wants her to run the store and take care of her mother. Her mother is ill and dependent on Rachel as a go-between with the world. Her sister needs a family member to rely on, since her parents are divorcing, and she is all alone. It is too late, however. Ruth cannot live her life in Suffolk. Guilt is not enough to hold her back. She has begun to find happiness and acceptance in the black community. Dennis is unusual: talented, thoughtful, religious, and he understands her. She knows she wants to marry him, but Dennis is understandably nervous about it. They live together secretly except for visiting his friends.
The shock about her father, the rabbi who leaves his religion, who was once so strict, is hardly commented upon. He is hypocritical enough to criticize Ruth for her behavior, but he leaves his religion behind as well, abandoning his wife and marrying a non-Jew. Ruth continues to feel guilt about her mother and sister for the rest of her life, but the inner pressure to live her own life is too strong to be denied. Ruth sees where a life of mere duty leads. Her mother has been the perfect Jewish wife, and yet she is treated like a dog. Ruth says, “they’d call her an ‘abused woman’ today. Back then they just called you ‘wife’” (p. 197). She does not want to repeat her mother’s unhappy life.
Summary of Chapter 20: Old Man Shilsky
In 1982 James is on his way to Suffolk, Virginia, to investigate his mother’s background there. He has a girlfriend, Karone, an African American model with a two-year-old son. His mother dislikes this arrangement, feeling it will ruin James’s life if he takes on a ready-made family. James has no plans to marry and ignores his mother.
James looks back at his emerging career as a journalist. He was a feature writer for the Boston Globe and was friends with the white jazz critic for the paper. Yet he was still up in the air about his life. He didn’t know whether to follow his first love, music, or continue as a writer. He is still caught between the black and white worlds. In college, he thought he would find a world without racism on his graduation, only to find it was still there. His instinct is to run, to keep moving, as his mother always does.
Now he looks at the map his mother made of where she lived in Suffolk. He had pushed her into making the map, because his need to know about the past is like an “itch” (p. 205). Suffolk has changed, he notices. It is now more of an industrial site than a town. He goes to a McDonald’s and opens the map. He realizes he is sitting right where the Shilsky family store used to be. He sees an old house behind McDonald’s and knocks on the door. An old black man answers.
James explains how he is looking for his mother’s people, the Shilskys. Finally, the man starts laughing when he realizes James is Rabbi Shilsky’s grandson. His name is Eddie Thompson, and he knew James’s mother, called Rachel then. This is the first time James has heard that name. Eddie says Rachel was the kindhearted one. He recalls Mrs. Shilsky would give treats to the children. Eddie confesses that he won’t find anyone in town who liked his grandfather, because the rabbi disliked and cheated the colored. Even his wife was afraid of “Old Man Shilsky” (p. 209). Eddie asks if he can call Ruth on the phone now, so they make a connection by telephone, and they hear Ruth crying on the other end.
Commentary on Chapter 20: Old Man Shilsky
It is an ironic image to have the McDonald’s on the spot where the Shilsky store used to be. It sums up the difference between eras—the impersonality and high tech aspect of the present that makes New York and Virginia alike in so many ways. This contrasts with the local feeling of the past, the claustrophobic high emotions and personal traumas of the South in the 1930s. Eddie laughs at the justice of the rabbi who hated blacks having a black grandson. He corroborates Ruth’s tale that Old Man Shilsky was a hateful man. When James asks Eddie where Shilsky is now, Eddy says, “Oh, I know where you can find him,” pointing down towards hell (p. 210).
Ruth’s tears in talking to Eddie on the phone indicate a door that has been opened in her between past and present. Healing can now take place for both her and James. This is a climax of the memoir.