In the beginning of the first chapter Ruth declares, “I’m dead.” In the 1980s, it’s been almost fifty years since she has seen or spoken to one of her relatives. She is dead to her family members, and her family might as well be dead to her. Ruth tells her son James that her family would not have put up with being questioned. She believes her father would have a heart attack if he saw her biracial son. Ruth gives a little past of her life.
Ruth was born an Orthodox Jew in Poland in 1921. Her name was originally Ruchel Dwarja Zylska, but when her family moved to the United States a few years later her name was changed to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and when she left Virginia in 1941 she changed it to Ruth. When Ruth married her first husband, Andrew McBride, her family sat in mourning as if Ruth had died.
Her father, Fishel Shilsky, who she called Tateh, was an Orthodox rabbi.
He was Russian but immigrated to Poland for his arranged marriage with Ruth’s mother Hudis, called Mameh. While Tateh was cold hearted, directing, and forceful, Mameh was soft spoken. Ruth’s mother had polio and the left side of her body and face were permanently paralyzed. Although Ruth does not feel guilt for leaving her family behind. James speaks in this chapter. When James is fourteen his stepfather Hunter Jordan dies, and his mother isn’t able to drive, Ruth starts bicycling around the community.
James mourns his stepfather, the person he thought of as his father. Hunter was seventy-two and seemed healthy, and his death was a surprise to the complete family. Bicycling around town helped Ruth mourn her second husband, his death reminded her of first husband, Andrew McBride, who passed away when she was pregnant with James fourteen years earlier.
Ruth is only fifty-one but not concerned about remarrying. James responds to his stepfather’s death by acting out. He started skipping class, smoking weed, shoplifting, and stealing purses. After a day spent doing minor crimes, James is ashamed to come home and see his middle-aged mother on her old blue bicycle, which he sees as an sign of how differential Ruth is from the other mothers in his community. James’ mother has created a unrestricted environment that she watches over, intervening whenever the situation becomes too serious or urgent. On James’ first day of school Ruth walks him to the bus stop. It’s the first time James can remember being alone with his mother, and it quickly becomes a beloved memory. When James asked his mother why she looks different than the other mothers, she wouldn’t give a full response.
She accepts she’s not like the other mothers, but says that it shouldn’t matter, and recommends that James is to stick close to his siblings instead of the community kids. Weeks later, James gets off the bus and panics when he realizes his mother isn’t there to greet him. He waits until all the other children have left with their parents, then he finally sees all of his family members running towards him, ready to greet him from the bus. Ruth describes Tateh and Mameh’s harsh arranged marriage. Mameh’s family was upper class and wealthy, and because of her Tateh, Mameh, Ruth, and her brother Sam to come to the United States. Ruth lived in constant terror of expulsion, by the US government and by her father, who threatened to send her back to Europe. Ruth’s father also threatened her mother with expulsion. When they first arrived in America, Ruth and her family lived with her grandparents, Bubeh and Zaydeh, in Manhattan. When Ruth is still a small child, Zaydeh passed away in the apartment. She has issues understanding his is death. In Ruth’s eyes it just looks like he is sleeping. Ruth’s family rarely talked or discuss death.