The Color of Water
A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride

Riverhead Books

Copyright © 1996 James McBride.All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57322-022-1



I'm dead.

You want to talk about my family and here I been dead to themfor fifty years. Leave me alone. Don't bother me. They want no parts ofme and me I don't want no parts of them. Hurry up and get thisinterview over with. I want to watch Dallas. See, my family, if youhad a been part of them, you wouldn't have time for this foolishness, yourroots, so to speak. You'd be better off watching the Three Stooges than tointerview them, like to go interview my father, forget it. He'd have aheart attack if he saw you, He's dead now anyway, or if not he's 150years old.

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 Dwajra Zylska. My parentsgot rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to RachelDeborah Shilsky, and I got rid of that name when I was nineteen andnever used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilskyis dead as far as I'm concerned, She had to die in order for me, the restme, to live.

My family mourned me when I married your father. They saidkaddish and sat shiva. That's how Orthodox Jews mourn their dead.They say prayers, turn their mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days,and cover their heads. It's a real workout, which is maybe why I'm nota Jew now. There were too many rules to follow, too many forbiddensand "you can'ts" and "you mustn'ts," but does anybody say they loveyou? Not in my family we didn't. We didn't talk that way. We saidthings like, "There's a box in there for the nails," or my father wouldsay, "Be quiet while I sleep."

My father's name was Fishel Shilsky and he was an Orthodox rabbi.He escaped from the Russian army and snuck over the Polish border andmarried my mother in an arranged marriage. He used to say he wasunder fire when he ran off from the army, and his ability to slick himselfout of anything that wasn't good for him stayed with him for as long asI knew him. Tateh, we called him, That means father in Yiddish. Hewas a fox, especially when it came to money. He was short, dark, hairy,and gruff. He wore a white shirt, black pants, and a tallis on hisshirtsleeve, and that was like his uniform, He'd wear those black pantstill they glazed and shined and were ripe enough to stand in the cornerby themselves, but God help you if those pants were coming your way ina hurry, because he was nobody to fool with, my father. He was hardas a rock.

My mother was named Hudis and she was the exact opposite of him,gentle and meek. She was born in 1896 in the town of Dobryzn, Poland,but if you checked there today, nobody would remember her family becauseany Jews who didn't leave before Hitler got through with Poland werewiped out in the Holocaust. She was pretty about the face. Dark hair,high cheekbones, but she had polio. It paralyzed her left side and left herin overall poor health. Her left band was useless. It was bent at the wristand held close to her chest, She was nearly blind in her left eye andwalked with a severe limp, dragging her left foot behind her. She was aquiet woman, my sweet Mameh, That's what we called her, Mameh. She'sone person in this world I didn't do right by....