Family has always been Richard Russo's fictional territory. In such memorable novels as Nobody's Fool, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls and That Old Cape Magic, he has explored the bonds between parents and children with insight, grace and humor.
Now he gives readers a look inside his own life with Elsewhere: A Memoir. Russo's first nonfiction book is a poignant account of his deep lifelong bonds — for better and worse — with his mother.
He opens the book with a glance back at the history of Gloversville, the upstate New York town in which he was raised. Named for its once-thriving glove manufacturing industry, by the time of Russo's boyhood in the 1950s it was slipping into decay. He recalls his maternal grandfather, a highly skilled glove cutter, explaining how back in the day he cut each glove from an animal hide that retained "some of nature's imperfections. The true craftsman, he gave me to understand, works around those flaws or figures out how to incorporate them into the glove's folds or stitching. Each skin posed problems whose resolution required creativity."
That little image is a hint at the roots of Russo's own creativity — and of how he learned to deal with the imperfections of someone he loved.
"As a boy I was happy as a clam in Gloversville," he writes. He was an only child, and his parents divorced when he was quite small. His father, a war hero who fought at D-day but later fell prey to a gambling addiction, was only a dim presence, but his mother was always there. She and "Ricko-Mio" lived in a duplex shared with her parents, a situation she found both supportive and oppressive. Jean Russo worked at a GE plant and was fiercely proud of her independence (even though it meant scrimping and scrounging) in an era when few women had either divorces or jobs outside the home.
Jean was attractive and loved the company of men, so her son sometimes felt like an encumbrance to her social life. But he was her rock, she told him, and she doted on him entirely. His decision at age 18 to enroll not at a nearby college but at the University of Arizona, a country's width away in Tucson, might have been a feint at his own independence. But he apparently wasn't all that surprised when his mother decided to come with him and start her own new life little more than a hundred miles away in Phoenix.
His account of their journey is hilariously harrowing: He had been driving just a few months and she didn't drive at all, but they hitch a loaded trailer to his beater of a car, dubbed the Gray Death, and toddle onto the interstates.
Once in Arizona, though, their roles begin to change. In Tucson, Rick thrives in his studies, falls in love and marries, falls just as much in love with the desire to become a novelist. In Phoenix, Jean struggles to find and keep a job (and to learn to drive), bounces in and out of romances and a brief second marriage, finally makes a retreat back to Gloversville.
But not for long. When she flies back to Arizona, even though it's only a year and a half since he's seen her, Russo hardly recognizes her: "She had to say my name, and I had to connect the sound of her voice to the frail, elderly woman coming toward me." So begins a long process of role reversal, during which Jean becomes increasingly dependent on her son and his family (and during which Russo's wife, Barbara, qualifies for sainthood).
Russo is such a skillful writer that we take that journey with him, only slowly realizing that there is a point at which making allowances for Mom's quirks spills over into something else, that with the absolute best of intentions caretakers can misunderstand the problems their loved ones face. Jean always had her own "narrative" of how things were, and, despite his genius as a writer of fiction, it takes her son much of a lifetime to discover his own version.
"One of the sadder truths of childhood," Russo writes, "is that children, lacking the necessary experience by which to gauge, are unlikely to know if something is abnormal or unnatural unless an adult tells them. Worse, once anything of the sort has been established as normal, it will likely be perceived as such well into adulthood, and this is particularly true for the only child, who has no one to compare notes with."
Near the end of the book, Russo writes of his mother's ambivalence toward her hometown, "No sooner was she elsewhere — anywhere else — than her loathing morphed seamlessly into loss." He certainly never loathed his mother, but Elsewhere is a rueful, moving accounting of how his ambivalence turned to sorrow at her loss.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.