Color of Water

Good biographies let you peek into another person's life. The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (1996) is a good biography, full of love if not always rational, well-written if not always brilliant. McBride's mother was a deeply flawed person; some of what she did in raising her dozen kids could well be viewed today as child abuse. The family survived only via vast infusions of charity from family, friends, strangers, and society.

Chapter 8 ("Brothers and Sisters") offers a glimpse of their home. It begins:

Mommy's house was orchestrated chaos and as the eighth of twelve children, I was lost in the sauce, so to speak. I was neither the prettiest, nor the youngest, nor the brightest. In a house where there was little money and little food, your power was derived from who you could order around. I was what Mommy called a "Little Kid," one of five young'uns, microscopic dots on the power grid of the household, thus fit to be tied, tortured, tickled, tormented, ignored, and commanded to suffer all sorts of indignities at the hands of the "Big Kids," who didn't have to go to bed early, didn't believe in the tooth fairy, and were appointed denizens of power by Mommy, who of course wielded ultimate power.

My brothers and sisters were my best friends, but when it came to food, they were my enemies. There were so many of us we were constantly hungry, scavenging for food in the empty refrigerator and cabinets. We would hide food from one another, squirreling away a precious grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich, but the hiding places were known to all and foraged by all and the precious commodity was usually discovered and devoured before it got cold. Entire plots were hatched around swiping food, complete with double-crossing, backstabbing, intrigue, outright robbery, and gobbled evidence. Back in the projects in Red Hook, before we moved to Queens, Mommy would disappear in the morning and return later with huge cans of peanut butter which some benevolent agency had distributed from some basement area in the housing projects. We'd gather around the cans, open them, and spoon up the peanut butter like soup, giggling as our mouths stuck closed with the gooey stuff. When Mommy left for work, we dipped white bread in syrup for lunch, or ate brown sugar raw out of the box, which was a good hunger killer. We had a toaster that shocked you every time you touched it; we called our toast shocktoast and we got shocked so much our hair stood on end like Buckwheat's. Ma often lamented the fact that she could not afford to buy us fruit, sometimes for weeks at a time, but we didn't mind. We spent every penny we had on junk food. "If you eat that stuff your teeth will drop out, " Mommy warned. We ignored her. "If you chew gum and swallow it, your behind will close up," she said. We listened and never swallowed gum. We learned to eat standing up, sitting down, lying down, and half asleep, because there were never enough places at the table for everyone to sit, and there was always a mad scramble for Ma's purse when she showed up at two A.M. from work. The cafeteria at Chase Manhattan Bank where she worked served dinner to the employees for free, so she would load up with bologna sandwiches, cheese, cakes, whatever she could pillage, and bring it home for the hordes to devour. If you were the first to grab the purse when she got home, you ate. If you missed it, well, sleep tight.

The food she brought from work was delicious, particularly when compared to the food she cooked. Mommy could not cook to save her life. Her grits tasted like sand and butter, with big lumps inside that caught in your teeth and stuck in your gums. Her pancakes had white goo and egg shells in them. Her stew would send my little brother Henry upstairs in disgust. "Prison stew," he'd sniff, coming back a few minutes later to help himself before the masses devoured it. She had little time to cook anyway. When she got home from work she was exhausted. We'd come downstairs in the morning to find her still dressed and fast asleep at the kitchen table, her head resting on the pages of someone's homework, a cold cup of coffee next to her sleeping head. Her housework rivaled her cooking. "I'm the worst housekeeper I've ever seen," she declared, and that was no lie. Our house looked like a hurricane hit it. Books, papers, shoes, football helmets, baseball bats, dolls, trucks, bicycles, musical instruments, lay everywhere and were used by everyone. All the boys slept in one room, girls slept in another but the labels "boys' room" and "girls' room" meant nothing. We snuck into each other's rooms by night to trade secrets, argue, commiserate, spy, and continue chess games and monopoly games that had begun days earlier. Four of us played the same clarinet, handing it off to one another in the hallway at school like halfbacks on a football field. Same with coats, hats, sneakers, clean socks, and gym uniforms. One washcloth was used by all. We all swore it belonged to us personally. ...

Ruth (Rachel Deborah) Shilsky McBride Jordan drove her children (at times violently) to become educated and self-reliant in a way that she herself never managed to achieve. James McBride credits her with the accomplishment, and mentions religion in a supporting rôle. The real engine of their success was, however, more likely the social welfare system — almost invisible in this book — that predominantly fed and housed and clothed and schooled her family. The success enjoyed now by the next generation of McBrides and Jordans speaks well for their mother, but it speaks better for the civilization that really brought them up.

(correlates: FloralCabin, InvisibleWriting, TolkienInspiration, ...)