The financial and emotional tolls of caring for aging parents has become a hot button topic for baby boomers. But as novelist Richard Russo, born in 1949, makes clear in his new memoir, carrying the weight of his unstable divorced mother's well-being has been a dominating factor for most of his life.
Elsewhere is actually more his mother's story than his own, which may disappoint fans of this troubadour of small-town, blue collar America. But Russo's evocation of his hometown, Gloversville, New York – for which his mother's hatred "was like the North Star, the one you navigate by, because otherwise you're lost, completely untethered" – provides insight into why fictional stand-ins for this down-at-heels working class town are central to so many of his novels, including Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls."
Russo's grandfathers both worked in the local leather trade as a glove cutter and a shoe repairman, respectively. In Gloversville's heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, ninety percent of the dress gloves in America were manufactured there. But after the second World War, when women started going out bare-handed and production moved overseas for cheap labor, the local economy was hit hard. By the 1970s, once-prosperous Gloversville had become "a Dresden-like ruin." Only later did Russo realize that his hometown was in fact "the canary in the mine shaft" of American towns and industries dying from the outsourcing of manufacturing.
For Russo's fun-loving, stylish mother, Gloversville was a place she abhorred while in residence, yet felt nostalgic about when she wasn't. Separated from her gambling, boozing husband (who worked in road construction), his mother was stuck renting the upstairs apartment in her parents' two-family house. She worked at GE in Schenectady and prided herself on what her only child calls her "perceived independence." In truth, he points out, she relied on her parents' assistance, especially with childcare, but resented needing their help.
Russo paints a vivid if devastating portrait of this woman stuck in "a cage of her own design" who identified strongly with Scarlett O'Hara yet had no Tara to root her. He captures her mix of pluck, pigheadedness, and panicked meltdowns. When her beloved "Ricko-Mio" chose to head to Arizona for college, she decided to relocate with him, which he seems to have accepted rather placidly. His spirited account of their hair-raising drive across country in his iffy old Ford Galaxie reads like a scene from one of his tragicomic novels.
Trying to help his mother find ever-elusive happiness, Russo gets sucked into what he acknowledges is "a dangerous loop of repetitive behavior." How to jeopardize a new marriage? Allow your mother to move into the cramped trailer you're living in while working your way through graduate school, not just teaching but singing in a restaurant to earn extra cash. Each relocation during his "academic nomadship" is complicated by the need to find suitable housing nearby for his mother. "Couldn't she, just this once, have what she wanted?" whines this woman who repeatedly scoffs at what assisted living can offer because "my son does all that."
Russo brings the remarkable compassion he's known for in his fiction to this account of filial forbearance taken to exasperating extremes. "It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made me," he writes with heartfelt appreciation.
But mainly he tries to untangle their warped dynamic and the constant "domestic triage" to which it led. The root cause of her misery doesn't become clear until after her protracted death, when one of his daughters is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Untreated, her doctor tells them, it will eat her alive. Aha.
A salient aspect of his mother's OCD, he realizes in retrospect, was obsessive, dogged rigidity – an inability to change course easily. He writes that "because of her inflexible adherence to poor sequencing she was forever discovering, too late, that her ship, which could easily have been turned around while out at sea, now had to be rotated in the cramped harbor." To extend his lovely metaphor: The tugboat charged with this difficult maneuver was, of course, her stalwart son.
Worried about his similarities with the mother ship, Russo comforts himself with the realization that novel-writing involves "living with and welcoming uncertainty." We might add that his chosen field enables him – the by-and-large contented, successful son of a woman who always wanted to be elsewhere – to satisfy that urge through his imagination. This is not only his good fortune, but ours.