Ruth McBride-Jordan sees her former self, Rachel Shilsky, as an entirely separate person. She uses her memories to divide her life in half, and attempts to erase the earlier version of herself. Rachel Shilsky only exists in memories, and because Ruth chooses not to access these memories, Rachel essentially ceases to exist and Ruth continues on without a past. However, Ruth isn’t the only one affected by her memories. Cultural memory and familial history are important for the identity formation of children, and Ruth denies her sons and daughters a key piece of their racial puzzle. James and his siblings are therefore left knowing only about their black heritage, all the while sensing that there is a hidden aspect of themselves yet to be revealed. James’s identity is deeply informed by his lack of knowledge of his mother’s past, and then rewritten as he uncovers her experiences with whiteness and Judaism. Suspecting but not knowing half of his racial makeup, the first thirty years of his life are partially defined by identity crises fueled largely by his half-filled-in family tree, and the years after are defined by an attempt to reconcile the two new halves of himself.
Ruth’s memories dictate her identity. She chooses not to revisit her time as Rachel, a Jewish child and young adult, and as a result Rachel becomes another woman, dead to her. This allows her to pick and choose who she wants to be, but it has the side effect of denying her children the ability to feel whole. James notes that Ruth has spent decades running and “moving as if her life depended on it,” and even as a child Ruth finds that running outside helped clear her mind, so it follows that she would run from her past, mentally and geographically, to escape the trauma of her youth. Ruth explains that her past self, “Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.” As a child, James has conversations with his mother where he attempts to find out about her past. She actively lies to him, telling her children she is a light-skinned black woman, only revealing that she’s “dead” to her family and that her family may as well be dead, too.
Ruth represses her memory to protect herself, whether it’s the memories of her husbands after they die or her life as Rachel. Although she is eventually able to think back to her childhood to help James write The Color of Water, in her day-to-day life she focuses on happy memories, the present, and the future. After the death of his father, James describes his mother’s memory as “like a minefield, each recollection a potential booby trap, a Bouncing Betty—the old land mines the Viet Cong used in the Vietnam War that never went off when you stepped on them but blew you to hell the moment you pulled your foot away.” James praises his mother’s ability to navigate incredibly difficult and stressful situations, but notes that afterwards she “wipes her memory instantly and with purpose; it’s a way of preserving herself. That’s how she moves. Her survival instincts are incredible, her dances with fire always fun to watch.”
At the end of her life, Ruth becomes more interested in preserving her memories. After a life defined by casting off old experiences and identities when they became too painful, Ruth is finally ready to record the present and begin to revisit the past. In her late sixties and seventies Ruth gets a camera and begins to document her life, using it to catch “all of her important moments.” James suspects this is because she knows “that each memory is too important to lose, having lost so many before.” The book itself is then an exploration of memories Ruth has repressed, memories of a girl and woman she no longer believes herself to be. Although Ruth is not interested in the book project at first, she eventually agrees to interviews, and even reconnects with old friends through James’s investigations. James recognizes that his mother has changed in the forty years since she left Virginia and converted to Christianity. Where Ruth once was too close to the past to face it, she’s finally ready to look back, and see her life in full.
Memories function both communally and individually. Private memories, in Ruth’s case, can have an effect both on her individual life and the lives of her children. Memory is a type of self-knowledge, and so James’s access to his mother’s past allows him to better understand himself. Without knowing anything about their mother’s past, it’s difficult for Ruth’s children to figure out how they fit into the world racially and culturally. In one way, then, Ruth’s revealed memories give her children a sense of freedom and self-knowledge, even though for Ruth herself shedding her memories was a crucial part of her escape from a painful past. In her old age, however, Ruth has largely extricated herself from this past, and is ready to revisit her old self and share her life with her son.
Memory and Identity ThemeTracker
Memory and Identity Quotes in The Color of Water
I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921, April Fool’s Day, in Poland. I don’t remember the name of the town where I was born, but I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwarja Zylska. My parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and I got rid of that name when I was nineteen and never used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.
The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it.
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’ll never learn to drive,” she said.
The irony was that Mommy knew how to drive before she was eighteen. She drove her father’s 1936 Ford back in Suffolk, Virginia. Not only did she drive it, she drove it well enough to pull a trailer behind it full of wholesale supplies for her family’s grocery store. She drove the care and trailer on paved and dirt roads between Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and North Carolina. She could back the trailer up with the goods in it, unload it at the store, back the car into the yard, unhook the trailer, and park the car in the garage, backing in. But she had left her past so far behind that she literally did to know how to drive. Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car and pull a trailer behind it, but Ruth McBride Jordan had never touched a steering wheel before that day in 1973, and you can make book on it.
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.
Sometimes without conscious realization, our thoughts, our faith, our interests are entered into the past…We talk about other times, other places, other persons, and lose our living hold on the present. Sometimes we think if we could just go back in time we would be happy. But anyone who attempts to reenter the past is sure to be disappointed. Anyone who has ever revisited the place of his birth after years of absence is shocked by the differences between the way the place actually is, and the way he has remembered it. He may walk along old familiar streets and roads, but he is a stranger in a strange land. He has thought of this place as home, but he finds he is no longer here even in spirit. He has gone onto a new and different life, and in thinking longingly of the past, he has been giving thought and interest to something that no longer really exists.
Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem.
For her, her Jewish side is gone. She opened the door for me but closed it for herself long ago, and for her to crack it open and peek inside was like eating fire. She’d look in and stagger back, blinded, as the facts of her own history poured over her like lava. As she revealed the facts of her life I felt helpless, like I was watching her die and be reborn again (yet there was a cleansing element, too), because after years of hiding, she opened up and began to talk about the past, and as she did so, I was the one who wanted to run for cover…Imagine, if you will, five thousand years of Jewish history landing in your lap in the space of months. It sent me tumbling through my own abyss of sorts, trying to salvage what I could of my feelings and emotions, which would be scattered to the winds as she talked.
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.
She catches all of her important moments with a camera, waddling down Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue from the A train to Long Island College Hospital to take pictures of my daughter Azure’s first days of life; standing my toddler son, Jordan, up against a tree in her yard so she can snap a quick picture of him in his Easter outfit. Her photos are horrible, heads cut off, pictures of nothing, a table, a hand, a chair. Still, she shoots pictures of any event that’s important to her, knowing that each memory is too important to lose, having lost so many before.