In August 1992 James returns to Suffolk to further investigate his mother’s past. James has recovered his uncle Sam’s death records, as well as the graveyard where his grandmother, Mameh, is buried. He’s discovered that Dee-Dee dropped out of high school right before Mameh died, and though he suspects he could track her down, he decides not to bring more pain into her life.
Tragically, James is introduced to an entire branch of his family tree only to realize that they’re either dead or uninterested in meeting him. Instead of reaching out to Dee-Dee, which would likely give him and Ruth some sense of closure or fulfillment, James sacrifices the chance to meet a blood relative as a merciful “favor” to Dee-Dee herself.
James makes his way to the Suffolk synagogue, the very same building where his grandfather led congregation and his mother sat in the audience. He has recently learned that because his mother was born Jewish, he is technically Jewish too. Unfortunately this religious bond doesn’t help him with the new rabbi at the Suffolk synagogue, who knows James is black and as a result seems unwilling to aid him in his research.
James has to deal with much of the same anti-black discrimination that his mother, her boyfriend, and her husbands had to deal with at the hands of the Jewish congregation in Suffolk. Even though he now knows he is Jewish, it doesn’t overcome the racism deeply entrenched in parts of the town’s Jewish community.
James thinks back to a 1982 trip to Suffolk when he met Aubrey Rubenstein, an office worker whose father had taken over Tateh’s store around 1942. He made some phone calls and connected James with other Jewish people in the area, who James describes as “truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was.” Rubenstein described James’ grandfather as a good teacher, but a corrupt man who didn’t live up to his potential. Mameh, in contrast, he called a “fine lady.” Rubenstein recorded a message for Ruth on James’s tape recorder, but James never played it for his mother, worrying it would make her too emotional.
Although his experience with the local Suffolk synagogue is disheartening, James manages to connect personally with some member of the Jewish community. Many Jewish people of Ruth’s generation see James as one of them, whether he is a practicing Jew or not. This is one of the first times in his life that James has been so readily accepted into a community, and for a man who has so desperately wanted to belong, it is a big deal for him.
Back in 1992, James wanders around Suffolk. He imagines how his grandmother (Mameh) must have felt—isolated and lonely, in a loveless marriage far from her family. In this moment, James begins to understand his family history, and therefore himself. The ache he’s felt since childhood transforms into a new sense of humanity. He realizes the greatest gift anyone can give is life, and he decides to live his life in a way that gives life, instead of taking it away.
In this transformative moment, James finally finds what he’s been aching for his entire life. As he wanders around Suffolk and imagines how his grandmother must have felt, he suddenly understands his family history, and the sacrifices his grandmother and his mother made to give him the life he has.