The Color of Water

The Color of Water Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
During her last summer in Suffolk Ruth receives a letter from New York announcing that Bubeh has died. The letter is in English, and so Ruth must read it to her mother, who cries and cries. Ruth remains in Suffolk a while longer, but eventually she knows it’s time to leave. Mameh asks her to stay, but Ruth knows she can’t have a good life there.
Although Ruth understands how much her presence would mean to her mother and to her sister (who asked her to stay in an earlier chapter), Ruth knows that staying in Suffolk will suffocate her. She must choose whether or not she’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness for her family, and she decides that she is not.
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Tateh meets Ruth at the bus station and tries to bribe her into staying, promising that she can move to the nearby town of Norfolk and go to college. Eventually he tries to use Mameh against her, saying Mameh needs Ruth, which Ruth sees as unfair, since Tateh divorced Mameh and clearly doesn’t care about her wellbeing.
Tateh is the last member of her family to ask Ruth to stay. His reasons are unclear. While Mameh needed Ruth to help her navigate in a country where she didn’t speak the language and Dee-Dee was likely lonely, Tateh only needs Ruth for the physical labor she provides. Perhaps as he realizes he’s going to lose her forever Tateh feels some kind of emotional connection, but that’s unlikely.
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Tateh warns Ruth that if she ever marries a black man she won’t be welcome back, and drives away. On the bus, Ruth opens the bag lunch Mameh has packed for her, and in it finds Mameh’s Polish passport, the only picture she has of her mother.
The final conversation Tateh has with Ruth encapsulates so much of who he is. He’s racist and controlling, and he would rather never see his daughter again than see her marry a man of a race he disapproves of. Mameh, meanwhile, although sad that Ruth has left her, gives Ruth her passport as a sign that she respects Ruth’s choice and wishes her luck in the future.
Themes
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Otherness and Belonging Theme Icon
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Related Quotes
Back in New York, Dennis is still working for Aunt Mary, and he hears that Tateh has hired a detective to look for Ruth. Not long after that, Dennis overhears that Mameh is sick and has been brought to New York for treatment. Ruth calls Aunt Mary and tries to see her mother, but Mary tells Ruth that she’s out of the family, and has forfeited her right to see her mother. A few days later Ruth gets a call at the glass factory where she works—her mother has died. She’s devastated, and enters a months-long depression. She realizes Mameh knew she was dying when Ruth left, which is why she gave Ruth her passport. Ruth worries that because she was leaving, and with Sam gone and Bubeh dead, Mameh didn’t have anything left to live for.
Although Ruth doesn’t regret leaving her family behind, early in the book she says that her one regret is leaving behind her mother. Leaving Dee-Dee behind dealt an emotional blow, but Ruth worries that she literally killed Mameh by taking away everything she had to live for. Still, it seems clear that Mameh knew she was dying, and blessed Ruth in her life by giving her the passport to remember her by.
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It takes time for Ruth to begin to feel better. What helps her is Dennis and his talk of God, and God’s forgiveness. Ruth believes Mameh “deserved better” from her, and this guilt helps motivate her to go to church. Listening to the preacher helps her begin to let go, and in her own words “that’s when I started to become a Christian and the Jew in me began to die. The Jew in me was dying anyway, but it truly died when my mother died.”
Judaism brought Ruth very little but pain and social exclusion, but Christianity is able to make her feel good in a way Judaism never could. Ruth’s last tie to Judaism was her mother, but with her mother’s death she is free to find a new religion that offers her the love, forgiveness, and community she’s always wanted.
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Ruth remembers her mother playing with live chickens on Yom Kippur, explaining that by killing the chicken they were showing their gratitude to God for letting them live. Mameh makes a distinction between chickens and birds who fly, explaining that “A bird who flies is special. You would never trap a bird who flies.” Ruth also remembers her mother sitting in the window, feeding birds and singing to them in Yiddish a song that translated to “Birdie, birdie fly away.”
Mameh lived her life trapped — trapped in an unhappy marriage, trapped in an anti-Semitic town, trapped in a body that was slowly breaking down. She seemed to understand that her life would never be completely happy, and made sacrifices for her children, the biggest being letting Ruth, “a bird who flies,” return to New York City where she can be free, while Mameh remained in Suffolk.
Themes
Otherness and Belonging Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Memory and Identity Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon