Summary of Chapter 21: A Bird Who Flies
Ruth returns to the year 1941 when she was temporarily at home in Suffolk. Mameh’s family in New York sends a letter saying they have three rooms full of furniture, and do they want it? Ruth remarks this was their way of letting them know that Bubeh had died. Ruth has the job of translating the letter to her mother and waits until the evening when she is sitting down. She reads the letter about Hudis’s mother being dead. Hudis never says a word but weeps in the night. It is so haunting to Ruth that she can remember the sound of her mother weeping fifty years later.
Ruth stays with her mother a little longer, but then announces she is leaving. Her mother and sister beg her to stay. Dee-Dee will not say good-by. Her mother gives her a bag lunch and kisses her. She never sees either of them again. Her father takes her to the bus and tries to talk Ruth out of leaving. He promises to set her up in business or send her to college. Ruth argues with him, and he says, if she marries a nigger, she doesn’t need to ever come home again. Ruth is surprised that he knows her intention. She gets on the bus and leaves home for good. When she opens the bag lunch, she sees her mother has put her Polish passport in the bag for Ruth to keep. It’s the only picture she has of her mother.
Dennis hears that Ruth’s father (Tateh) has hired a detective to find her and bring her home. She lays low and gets a job in a glass factory. One day in 1942 Dennis comes home to tell her he heard her mother is in a hospital in the Bronx. She calls Aunt Mary to find out where her mother is so she can see her. Aunt Mary informs Ruth that she is no longer in the family. They sat shiva for Ruth. Ruth is torn. She wants to see her mother before she dies, but she is officially out of the family. A few days later she gets a call at work that her Mameh has died. Ruth falls to the floor weeping and can’t get up.
She is consumed with guilt about her mother, and Dennis tells her, “’You’ve got to forgive yourself, Ruth. God forgives you’” (p. 217). Ruth realizes her mother knew she was dying, and that’s why she gave her the passport. Her mother died because “her reasons for living just slipped away” (p. 217). Dennis helps Ruth through this bad period, and she begins going to church with him.
Commentary on Chapter 21: A Bird Who Flies
Aunt Mary tells Ruth she is out of the family because they “sat shiva” for her, performing the ceremony of the dead for Ruth, even though she is alive. She no longer exists to them, and she is not allowed to see her dying mother.
Ruth comments that the Jew in her was dying anyway, but this ceremony and her mother’s death completely killed it. She wants to be a Christian now because she needs help, and the Christian message of forgiveness is what she needs to heal. Again, the family history is presented with parallels. We see Hudis receiving news of her mother’s (Bubeh’s) death, and then we see Ruth receiving news of her mother’s (Hudis’s) death. Something dies with the mother’s passing. The mother represents the earliest and deepest connection to life, the core identity. Hudis gets a double blow of her mother dying and her daughter leaving. She has no connection to the past generation or the future generation. She is unloved, uncared for, and ill. Ruth knows Hudis had nothing to live for and dies at the early age of forty-five.
The chapter is named for a story Ruth tells about her mother. At Yom Kippur, Hudis waves a live chicken over her head and says to it, “You to death, me to life” (p. 218) as is customary. Then her father comes in with his knives to kill the chicken. Ruth hates this violence and objects. Her mother explains: it is only a chicken. It is not a bird that flies. You must never trap a bird that flies, because it is special. Ruth remembers her mother feeding the birds at the window and singing to them, “Birdie, birdie, fly away” (p. 218).
Ruth does not comment on this symbolism, but surely, Hudis is the chicken that must die, and Ruth is the bird that flies away, with her mother’s blessing.
Summary of Chapter 22: A Jew Discovered
In 1992, James is back in Suffolk trying to get into the synagogue where the Shilskys had once worshipped. By now, James has searched all kinds of records. His grandmother Hudis is buried in Long Island. His uncle Sam Shilsky died in the war in 1944. He feels like he is looking for ghosts. Dee-Dee is gone, and Fishel disappeared. He wants to see the inside of the synagogue so he can tell his own black wife and two children about it. He has been told that if one’s mother is Jewish, then he is Jewish too. The Jewish rabbi in the synagogue is not very helpful, and he never sees the inside.
James gets what he needs, not through official records, but through the feeling in the town. He tunes into the loneliness the Jews would feel here, the heartbreak, like a suffocation, like an old wound from the Civil War. Some of the Jews in Suffolk had welcomed him in 1982 when he met Aubrey Rubenstein, whose father had taken over the Shilsky store in 1942. The Jews treated him as one of them though they were white. They recognize that he has something connected to Judaism in him, and this experience had been helpful to James. From Rubenstein he learns about the Jewish community when his family lived in Suffolk. By the time he returns in 1992, however, Rubenstein is dead.
James decides finally to close the books on his investigation but has an epiphany before leaving town. At four in the morning he goes to the Narisemond River where so many bodies had been found. He thinks of the tragic life of Hudis Shilsky and “a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me” (p. 229). He feels her lonely life so deeply that he knows life is more than black vs. white. There is something human that transcends race. He understands all the social and religious rules are secondary to a basic compassion for all people.
Commentary on Chapter 22: A Jew Discovered
This chapter records James’s making peace with his identity. He accepts the Jew in himself as well as the black, and he accepts that the human experience has universal features that do not depend on social markers. He is able to feel compassion for a Jewish white grandmother he never met. He had been doing the search for family roots externally as records or interviews with people who knew the Shilskys. Finally, he goes within to know that he has the Jewish soul in him as well as black soul. What he was looking for was more than a record, or a place, or an interview. He found his own humanity, his own place in the scheme of things.
His journey has been a long one, from childhood. Now he himself is a father, and that is perhaps why he had to finish the journey, so he could know what to tell his children. The memoir is a legacy for them as well as healing for his mother and himself.
Summary of Chapter 23: Dennis
Ruth points out that she was accepted by most blacks, but some never did accept her, like the woman who punched her in the face. She had to stay on the black side after her mother died, however, because there was no turning back. She had fewer problems with blacks than with whites, who called her white trash. She notes with irony the mixed race couples on TV now talking about prejudice. She says they don’t know what it was like: “They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did” (p. 232). Ruth and Dennis were pursued in the street and beaten, even in New York City. Ruth was not discouraged because from her point of view, marriage is not about black or white, “It’s about God” (p. 233).
They acted like husband and wife, but Dennis was afraid to marry Ruth at first. Dennis took her to his church where he was a deacon, and Ruth loved it. He expanded her world: he meditated, believed in equal rights, in knowledge, and in books. He loved black culture and black sports figures. His friends accepted her, especially after she became a Christian. Once she accepted Jesus, she insisted on marriage so she would not live in sin. Dennis agreed, and they were married by his pastor in the black church.
Ruth says of Dennis, “He came from a home where kindness was a way of life. I wanted to be in that kind of family” (p. 236). Her husband warns they will have to be strong, because people will try to come between them. They were tested, but lived together for sixteen years. They had the first baby in 1943 in a one-room apartment, with a shared bath. They had four children in that room in nine years, the happiest time of her life. Finally they applied to get housing in the Red Hook Housing Project in Brooklyn, and in 1950 they moved there. Ruth loves that the Projects are integrated with Jews, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Italians. There is grass for the kids to play on. Ruth says, “I loved that man. I never missed home or my family after I got married. My soul was full” (p. 240).
When Dennis got the calling to preach, he enrolled in a Bible College and got a divinity degree. By then they had seven kids. Together they started the New Brown Memorial Church in their living room. In 1957, however, Dennis got ill and went to the hospital. She was never told he had cancer until he died. While he is dying, Ruth finds herself pregnant. Dennis names his son, James, and tells Ruth to rely on God. After Dennis dies, people deluge Ruth with money and donations to help her and the children. She goes back to her Jewish family for help, but they slam the door in her face. God, however, sends Hunter Jordan to her, her second husband, who takes care of all of them.
Commentary on Chapter 23: Dennis
James effectively arranges the order of these chapters, making us wait and look forward almost to the end of the book for the story of his father, Dennis, the man for whom Ruth gave up her white identity. Dennis achieves almost mythical status by the few glimpses we get of him in retrospect through Ruth’s eyes, for James never knew him. What the older children knew of him is not presented here.
Ruth’s whole marriage to Dennis, the true love of her life, is condensed in this chapter, but the details are powerfully selected. Having four children in a one room apartment with cockroaches does not sound like paradise, but Ruth is deeply in love and inspired by Dennis’s faith and understanding. What he taught her lasted her whole life. She compares her life with her friend, Lily’s, who was also a Jewish woman married to a black man. She and her husband, however, were communists, and their marriage did not last.
Ruth sees the Red Hook Housing Project as an image of America: “It was a real American life, the life I’d always dreamed of” where everyone was integrated into a community. In the next chapter, we get more of a picture of the church she started there with her husband that brought all sorts of people together. Ruth does not understand why she lived, and Dennis died. He was the one who had so much to give.
She says part of her died with his passing. She was widowed at the age of thirty-six and with eight children, she struggled to survive, because Dennis was not able to leave them any money. Dennis told her on his deathbed to look to God to help her. She believes Hunter Jordan was sent to her by God, and he kept his promise to her to look after them all, at least for the next fourteen years. She explains it never occurred to her to marry a white man after being with Dennis. The black people were the only ones who supported her and accepted her and her children.
Summary of Chapter 24: New Brown
October of 1994 is the fortieth anniversary of the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church of Brooklyn. Its sixty members are gathered in a Ramada Inn in Queens for a dinner. James says, “This is Mommy’s home church. The church where I got married. This is the church my father Andrew McBride built” (p. 250). James reflects on his father that he never lived to see his dream fulfilled, but when James goes through Andrew’s (Dennis’s) papers, they “reveal a man in constant thought” (p. 250). Rev. McBride speaks of Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Jackie Robinson. His writing includes sermons and Bible verses. James understands that his father knew it was his time to die. He left no insurance money, but “he helped establish the groundwork for Ma’s raising twelve children which lasted thirty years” (p. 251).
James comments that it took a lot to get his mother to come to this dinner. She feels out of touch now as the only white person in the church. It’s a different generation. She thinks the minister is insensitive and has slighted her. James also notes that Ruth doesn’t speak of Dennis that much, because “Her memory was like a minefield” (p. 253). His mother is now seventy-four, and she practices yoga, but she has never given a speech until now. She gets up and fumbles a bit and then finds her pace. The audience is appreciative, and years of age drop away as she explains how she and Dennis started the church.
Commentary on Chapter 24: New Brown
Here we see James finally delving into his father’s mind by reading the contents of his old briefcase. The portrait that emerges is of a remarkable man, not merely a religious man, but a philosophical one. We understand Ruth’s attraction. In a sermon, Dennis had warned about getting lost in the past: “anyone who attempts to reenter the past is sure to be disappointed” for in doing so we “lose our living hold on the present” (p. 250). The past is “no longer here even in spirit” (p. 250).
This is an interesting comment after reading James’s memoir on his past and his mother’s past. Ruth had shut off the past whenever someone died or something was finished. That did not work, for it left suppressed pain in her. Yet Dennis would warn her not to hang on to the past either. The memoir does something more profound. It opens up the past to heal it and understand it, so the present can be more fully lived. James is able to do justice to every person in the family, to see with compassion why a certain path was followed, by using his journalist’s eye with his own history.
Ruth grudgingly accepts the new minister, but no one can live up to the man Dennis was: “Now your father, he had vision” (p. 253). In her opinion, if a minister doesn’t have vision, he shouldn’t “waste God’s time” (p. 258).
Summary of Chapter 25: Finding Ruthie
Ruth speaks to James about her burial wishes. She doesn’t want to be buried in New Jersey or Virginia or North Carolina where Dennis is, not the South that she ran away from and not New York that is too crowded. Then she acts cranky and refuses to discuss her death, though doctors had found a cell cancer in a mole they removed. James knows she is thinking about her own death now.
James reflects on how he followed his mother’s example by fleeing to the black side, “into the anonymity of blackness” (p. 262), yet he is frustrated that the world considers your skin color “an immediate political statement” (p. 262). Although race is still a challenge, James has accepted that the white world is not as free as it looks.
After graduation, James kept running to stay clear of racial issues. He got his master’s degree in journalism and went back and forth between being a musician and journalist. Just when he was successful at a newspaper, he would quit. He was afraid to marry and have children who would have to face the same racial problems, though he notes the middle class blacks of the 1980s and 1990s have no idea of the conflicts of the inner city blacks. The only way he knew to stop running was to confront his mother and make a journalistic story of her life. He does a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on his mother, and the response is so overwhelming that he decides to work on the book with Ruth. The process of his mother’s reopening the past was painful for her and for him to watch. He sees her “die and be reborn again” (p. 269). As her life is rebuilt by their venture, so is his.
At the age of sixty-five, Ruth gets a college degree in social work and becomes a volunteer in a social service agency for unwed mothers. Now she drives, takes yoga, and visits her friends at Red Hook. Finally, she takes a trip back to Suffolk, and then to Portsmouth, Virginia, to meet her old friend Frances. She and Frances pick up their friendship in old age. James concludes he is glad his mother came over to the African-American side, and tells all the names of her children, their degrees and professions.
Commentary on Chapter 25: Finding Ruthie
In fact, Ruth McBride Jordan did not die until January, 2010, according to a tribute on James McBride’s website. The last chapter gives perspective on an extraordinary life, with a gutsy old woman getting her college degree and making a contribution when she should be retiring. The list of children and their professions does more than anything else to get across Ruth’s determination. Without education herself, or any prestige, contacts, or money, she managed to foster two doctors, a Ph.D. department chair at Columbia, a staff psychologist, a nurse midwife, a professor of chemistry, a journalist, a special education teacher, a computer consultant, a high school teacher, and two business managers. James describes all the children, spouses, and grandchildren as an “army” (p. 277).