In 1993, as James puts together Ruth’s will, the two of them discuss where she wants to be buried. She doesn’t want to be buried in New Jersey, where she now lives, or in Virginia, or North Carolina, or anywhere in the South. Ruth recently had a cancerous mole removed, a condition that mostly affects white people, which James sees as the ultimate representation of his mother—“a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem.”
Even in her old age Ruth remains a walking, talking contradiction. She has black children and black friends and identifies as black, but her skin is still white and still susceptible to the diseases that predominantly affect white people, regardless of how she chooses to identify racially.
James believes it took him so long to uncover Ruth’s past because he spent so long wrapped up in his own questions of race and identity. After college and journalism school, James vacillates between music and journalism. He gets good writing jobs but always quits them, feeling trapped between blackness and whiteness in the workplace. He doesn’t identify with racist white editors “finding clever ways to gut the careers of fine black reporters,” but neither does he feel like a radical black man trying to make a difference in the media. He also resents conservative black men at work, who make a big deal of their race, even though he feels they do not understand the urban black experience.
James struggles to navigate his racial identity in the professional world. He sees a clear racial divide in the reporters at his workplaces, but doesn’t feel as though he can easily pick a side. Because James assumed his identity crisis would eventually resolve itself, even as an adult he doesn’t have the tools to navigate the world as a mixed-race man with conflicting interests and priorities.
Ruth hates that James keeps quitting his jobs, but just like she ran from her troubles, James feels that by moving from job to job he can outrun his identity confusion. He only finds out his mother’s maiden name in college when he needs to fill out a form, and it isn’t until 1982, when he writes a Mother’s Day piece, that he begins to deeply investigate Ruth’s past. He asks her if she’d like to collaborate on a book, and she says she will if he wants to and if it will make him rich.
After many years of locking her memories away, Ruth is finally willing to access them for the sake of her son. Although she feels no real need to revisit the past, Ruth decides to put the needs of her family above her own desires, and to take a trip back in time if it will make her son happy, successful, and wealthy.
It takes James over a decade to get Ruth to sit down for his interviews, a process he hoped would take a few months at most. Although Ruth eventually opens herself to him, James understands that her Jewish side is gone, and in talking to him about her childhood she is essentially raising the dead.
As Ruth says again and again throughout the book, she has so completely disassociated from her Jewish past that “Rachel” is not just a series of memories, but is like an entirely different person—one who has been dead for decades.
At sixty-five Ruth gets her college degree in social work, and moves in with her daughter, Kathy, in New Jersey. She keeps busy volunteering, taking yoga classes, and driving around. She still takes trips back to Red Hook to visit her church and old friends, even as the neighborhood gets more dangerous. James describes his mother as living her life like she’s piloting an airplane. She lets it get out of control, but at the last minute rights the craft, and then wipes her memory of the whole ordeal.
In her later years Ruth remains interested in all the same activities she enjoyed as a younger woman. She still likes being close to her children, and she still enjoys spending time in the neighborhood and in the church where she raised her children.
In 1993, James and Ruth return to Suffolk. It’s the first time Ruth has been in fifty years, but she comments that “nothing’s changed.” The two of them are looking for Ruth’s childhood friend Frances, whose address they find in the Suffolk town library. Together the pair drive to Frances’s new home in Portsmouth, and Ruth gets increasingly nervous. But once they’ve arrived and met each other, the two seem to pick up where they left off. Their friendship is instantly rekindled—a happy side effect of a book Ruth at first didn’t want to participate in.
Ruth’s friendships have always operated more like family relationships (while her early family relationships operated more like business dealings), and so when she is reunited with Frances she’s able to resume her friendship as though no time has passed at all.
Ruth sees her life work as her children’s achievements. She’s proud of all her sons and daughters, who have endured hardship but “carry themselves with a giant measure of dignity, humility, and humor.” Every year the whole family gathers at Ruth’s house in Ewing, New Jersey, and all the siblings immediately revert to their crazy childhood dynamics, full of bickering and chaos, but also unwavering deference to their mother, who still wields absolute power.
In the book Ruth has asked James to include a list of all of his siblings and all of their accomplishments. This also reads as a list of all of Ruth’s accomplishments, as her greatest joy in life was watching her children grow and flourish as bright, driven adults.