What writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”
Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.
She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”
Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.
As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …