Saturday, October 17, 2015

Faith,  Family,  and Freedom

Friends, please excuse this five-month absence. As I mentioned in my last blog, this motherhood stuff does not come naturally to me, having had no practice in my first 62 years. Indeed, the Summer of 2015 slipped right past me. 

So on this glorious fall day, I’m back at my keyboard. Slight breeze blowing, few leaves falling, sunshine streaming low through the trees.  These are the aspects of Autumn that I appreciate. On the other hand, driving west after 4pm and the earlier sunsets are not among my favorite traits of the season. Still, fall is a great time to reduce the pile of “to be read” books on my nightstand. 

It won’t surprise you that I had been gifted some months ago with another wonderful book by my friend, Anne. It is not a new publication (the copy I have is a Tenth Anniversary Edition), but the New York Times Book Review Section is not the first part of the Sunday paper I reach for. ((You know me, it’s the crossword puzzle in the magazine section.))  

Please welcome to your own "must read" list James McBride’s The Color of Water. I opened the book on Wednesday, and chided myself for having waited so long. I put it down to run errands for two days, and finished it this Saturday morning. Engrossing? Yes. Enthralling? Yes. Compelling? Definitely.  An excellent investment of your time (which will fly by)? Without question!

The sub-title is A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. His dedication reads "... for my mother, and her mother, and mothers everywhere." But his story is different, just as each one of our stories is different. 

His mom was Jewish, born in Poland in 1921. Her Jewish name was Ruchel which was changed to Rachel when they moved to America, and eventually to the even more American-sounding Ruth. Her father was a traveling rabbi, her mother, a polio victim. When he stopped traveling, he opened a grocery store in the black neighborhood of a small southern town, where the whole family worked every day but Saturday. 
               Ruth's family said kaddish and sat shiva when she married the author's black, Christian, preacher father. She was dead to them.

What is the book about? Race? Yeah. Faith? Sure. Education and opportunity? That too. But mostly it's about facing challenges, training the next generation to do the same, and daring to stand up for one's inalienable rights, even before a government body takes it upon itself to decide who has them. Ruth raised twelve children, put them all through college, and counts among them doctors, educators, college professors, and ... oh, yes... a musician/composer/writer.  

The title comes from a conversation the author had with his mom about whether God was black or white. 
         "He's not black or white. He's a spirit." 
         "What's a spirit?" 
         "Stop asking these questions! What color is water? That's the color God is.”

There can be no broad-brushing of the issues "of racism, sexism, classism, and socioeconomics” without diminishing the importance and impact of this book. As the author notes in the Afterword:

“… hard-line intellectuals have already had a field day with this book, using it to promote every sort of sociopolitical ideology. But at the end of the day, there are some questions that have no answers, and then one answer that has no question: Love rules the game. Every time. All the time. That’s what counts. 
 “For me, this book has always been, and will forever be, a book about a mother and her children, and how that mother raised her children with love and respect and God.”

Like I said, different, like everybody else’s.

At the end of Chapter 21, Ruth recalls a particular Yom Kippur ritual where her mom waved a chicken over their heads:

 “I don’t want to do that in America,” [Ruth would] say.
 But [her mother would] say, “That chicken is just showing God we’re thankful for living. It’s just a chicken. It’s not a bird who flies. A bird who flies is special. You would never trap a bird who flies.”
         She used to sit in a little rocking chair in her room upstairs and watch the birds. She’d lay crumbs on the ledge of her window and the birds would gather there and eat while she sang to them, but she’d always shoo them away and make them fly off so they’d be free again. She had a little Yiddish song she used to sing to them. “Feygele, feygele, gay a veck.” “Birdie, birdie,  fly away.”

To all moms and honorary-moms who have birdies in your lives and on your ledges, feed them, sing to them, but be diligent
  to shoo them away, 
  to their freedom, 
   to go where they are supposed to go 
                                  to become who they are supposed to become.

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