Family is usually a source of love and comfort, but it can also be a source of great pain. In The Color of Water, family means not just one’s biological relations, but also a large web of friends and loved ones. Ruth’s immediate family is made up of her siblings, her mother and father, and a network of aunts and uncles. Although they offer her the most basic life necessities—food, water, a place to sleep—Ruth does not feel loved or cared for by many of her blood relations. In contrast, Ruth values her assembled families, which are made up of friends, members of her church, and her husbands and their relatives who give her the love she lacked as a child. The book suggests that family at its core is about compromise and sacrifice, and the willingness to give up some personal comfort to help another in need.
Ruth’s parents do not provide her with a nurturing and loving home. Her desire to leave Virginia and move to New York is partially inspired by how difficult life is with her abusive father and powerless mother. Ruth’s father Tateh sexually abuses her as a child. As a result, she is terrified of him, but has no way to defend herself. He works Ruth and her siblings every day of the week, seeing them as employees to exploit more than he sees them as family. Although Mameh demonstrates her love for Ruth by keeping Ruth’s pregnancy secret and silently blessing her final move to New York City, her father makes it clear he does not love or respect her at all. Ruth is therefore forced to find a new, better family, who will love her unequivocally. As a teenager and young adult, Ruth eventually decides that her obligation to her biological family is less important than her obligation to herself and her own happiness. After living in New York for a few years she briefly returns to Suffolk, but although her sister begs her to stay, Ruth knows that she cannot. Ruth, who spent her childhood “starving for love and affection,” eventually seeks out a community of people who can, emotionally, give her what she needs.
After Ruth leaves home her family cuts her out of their lives. They literally shit shiva for her, which designates her as good as dead. To make up for the family she has lost, Ruth constructs a new, primarily black family. Her husband Andrew Dennis McBride and her mixed-race children become her new immediate family, and she also finds community in her church and in her neighborhoods. The one downside of having an expansive web of people she cares about means Ruth has even more people in her life she can potentially lose. Ruth treats her friends as she would her sisters or brothers, and so is almost as affected by the deaths of nonrelatives as she is by the deaths of her husbands. Still, a greater community means more support in times of trouble. After Dennis dies, Ruth returns home to find her mailbox full of checks and money from other families in her Red Hook housing complex. Although they are not related, these men and women who live nearby see Ruth and her family as part of their community, someone to be looked out for. They care about her wellbeing and the wellbeing of her children.
For James, family is the one constant, stable aspect of his life. His mother, eleven siblings, and stepfather are his whole world. Although technically four of his siblings are his half-brothers and half-sisters, and Hunter Jordan is his stepfather, he loves everyone just the same. For the combined McBride-Jordan family, what matters is that they share the same mother and that they love one another. There are hierarchies in the family based on the ages of the children, but there are no divisions based on who each child’s father is. When James and his siblings are in trouble, their family is a safe, stable place to return to, and their mother’s wellbeing is a constant worry that helps steer them back onto the path she has envisioned for them—one free of crime and misbehavior, and ideally one full of academic success.
In The Color of Water, true family is defined by love. James, his siblings, and his stepfather are all family because they love one another. In contrast, Ruth’s father does not act as a family member should. He is selfish and cruel, and does not work to ensure a good life for his children. In addition to love, family is defined by sacrifice. Ruth’s mother, who did truly love her, moved to the United States for her children. Ruth’s grandmother also was always kind to Ruth and made herself available when Ruth needed to talk. Ruth, in turn, worked hard and did everything she could to ensure the best lives possible for her children, passing on the more positive aspects of what family means to James and his siblings.
Family Quotes in The Color of Water
To further escape from painful reality, I created an imaginary world for myself. I believed my true self was a boy who lived in the mirror. I’d lock myself in the bathroom and spend long hours playing with him. He looked just like me. I’d stare at him. Kiss him. Make faces at him and order him around. Unlike my siblings, he had no opinions. He would listen to me. “If I’m here and you’re me, how can you be there at the same time?” I’d ask. He’d shrug and smile. I’d shout at him, abuse him verbally. “Give me an answer!” I’d snarl. I would turn to leave, but when I wheeled around he was always there, waiting for me. I had an ache inside, a longing, but I didn’t know where it came from or why I had it. The boy in the mirror, he didn’t seem to have an ache. He was free. He was never hungry, he had his own bed probably, and his mother wasn’t white. I hated him. “Go away!” I’d shout. “Hurry up! Get on out!” but he’d never leave.
As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.
I was always grateful to Aunt Betts for that. Even though she slammed the door in my face years later, I never felt bitter toward her. She had her own life and her own set of hurts to deal with, and after all, I wasn’t her child. Mameh’s sisters were more about money than anything else, and any hurts that popped up along the way, they just swept them under the rug. They were trying hard to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind. But you know what happens when you do that. If you throw water on the floor it will always find a hole, believe me.
“I know you’re gonna marry a shvartse. You’re making a mistake.” That stopped me cold, because I didn’t know how he learned it. To this day I don’t know. He said, “If you marry a nigger, don’t ever come home again. Don’t come back.”
“I’ll always come to see Mameh.”
“Not if you marry a nigger you won’t,” he said. “Don’t come back.”
As I walked along the wharf and looked over the Nansemond River, which was colored an odd purple by the light of the moon, I said to myself, “What am I doing here? This place is so lonely. I gotta get out of here.” It suddenly occurred to me that my grandmother had walked around here and gazed upon this water many times, and the loneliness and agony that Hudis Shilsky felt as a Jew in this lonely southern town—far from her mother and sisters in New York, unable to speak English, a disabled Polish immigrant whose husband had no love for her and whose dreams of seeing her children grow up in America vanished as her life drained out of her at the age of forty-six—suddenly rose up in my blood and washed over me in waves. A penetrating loneliness covered me, lay on me so heavily I had to sit down and cover my face. I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon.
There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren’t accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They’d say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That’s what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, “Oh, it’s hard for us.” They have cars and television and homes and they’re complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did.
Mommy’s children are extraordinary people, most of them leaders in their own right. All of them have toted more mental baggage and dealt with more hardship than they care to remember, yet they carry themselves with a giant measure of dignity, humility, and humor. Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more—wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews—ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blonde hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere—on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, “two up, three down,” just like old times.