In first line of the first chapter Ruth declares, “I’m dead.” At this point, in the 1980s, it’s been almost fifty years since she’s seen or talked to one of her relatives. She’s dead to her parents and siblings, and her family may as well be dead to her.
This chapter, like every odd-numbered chapter except for Chapter 25, is told from the point of view of Ruth, who is telling James her life story. We will later learn that this is the first time she’s revisited her past since she left her family back in 1941, closing the door on her mother, father, sister, brother, and a version of herself.
Ruth tells her son James that her family would not have put up with being interviewed. She suspects her father would “have a heart attack” if he saw her mixed-race son.
Although Ruth’s father faced anti-Semitic discrimination, he feels no empathy for African Americans, who he happily discriminates against.
Ruth gives a short history of her life: she was born an Orthodox Jew in Poland in 1921. Her name was originally Ruchel Dwarja Zylska, but when her family immigrated to the United States a few years later it was changed to the Americanized Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and when she left Virginia in 1941 she changed it to Ruth. She explains, “Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me to live.”
Ruth has compartmentalized many of her memories in her mind. Her time as Ruchel has been completely forgotten, and her time as Rachel has been locked away and repressed, only accessed in her middle age to help write The Color of Water. Ruth protects herself by mentally killing off her past self, because to be a happy and functioning adult, she knew she couldn’t dwell on her traumatic adolescence.
When Ruth married her first husband, Andrew McBride, her family sat shiva and acted as though she had died. In Jewish tradition it takes seven days to mourn, and Ruth explains that rules like this, in addition to a loveless childhood, made her dislike Judaism.
Ruth declared her old self to be dead when she changed her name from Rachel and moved out of her hometown, and her family treated her as though she had died as well. This was partially motivated by what they saw as her abandonment, and partly due to racist resistance to her black husband.
Ruth’s parents were polar opposites. Her father, Fishel Shilsky, who she called Tateh, was an Orthodox rabbi. He was Russian but moved to Poland for his arranged marriage with Ruth’s mother Hudis, called Mameh. While Tateh was cold, controlling, and commanding, Mameh was “gentle and meek.” She had polio and the left side of her body and face were permanently paralyzed. Although Ruth does not regret leaving her family behind, she remarks that Mameh was the “one person in this world I didn’t do right by…”
Ruth’s parents were not a love match, and they never fall in love. Although her mother tries, the pair is unable to provide their children with a warm and loving home. When the opportunity presents itself for her to escape, Ruth takes it. She is happy to find somewhere and perhaps someone who can give her the warmth she was denied in childhood. However, although her early years were unhappy, and Ruth hates her father, she understands that her mother did the best she could, and wonders if she could have done more for Mameh.