A son's poignant memories
Novelist Richard Russo had no doubt that he should write a book about the close and emotionally complicated relationship he had with his mother. The question was, should he publish it?
“I had to write the book because after my mother’s death she was very much in my waking thoughts and haunting my dreams as well, which suggested to me there was some unfinished business,” Russo says during a call that reaches him at the apartment he and his wife Barbara own in Boston. Most of the year the couple lives in Camden, Maine. Russo travels frequently for book tours, lectures and his scriptwriting work, and he’s found that it’s much easier to fly out of Boston. In fact, the morning following our conversation, he will fly from Boston to Helsinki to speak at opening ceremonies for the U.S. State Department’s new library there.
“My mother’s story seemed important both in terms of the private, intimate mother-son story and in terms of its broader cultural and political context,” Russo says. “She was part of the World War II generation and what happened to her is very much an American story and a story about the changes that were taking place in America as she grew into her maturity. That’s why this book is so much about Gloversville.”
In a beautifully evocative prologue to Elsewhere: A Memoir, Russo tells us that, in its prime, the upstate New York town of Gloversville produced 90 percent of the dress gloves sold in the world. Russo’s mother and father grew up there, married young and separated when he was a little boy. By the time Russo was a teenager, most of the glove-making work had been shipped overseas and the toxic residues of processing leather were left for the dwindling local population to deal with. “By the time I graduated from high school in 1967,” Russo writes, “you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul.”
Russo’s mother, as the book’s title implies, had conflicting feelings about her hometown. “What she thought about Gloversville depended on whether she was there or elsewhere,” Russo says. “It was the central dilemma of her life and in some ways it has been the central dilemma of my artistic life as well. There is the actual physical place, which fills me at times with the visceral loathing that I learned from my mother. Then there’s the Gloversville that’s been transformed into Mohawk , Empire Falls [2002 Pulitzer Prize winner] and Thomaston [Bridge of Sighs, 2007]. In all those places I am free to love the fictional avatars of Gloversville with my whole heart and whole soul, and my mother’s opinion of the place doesn’t enter into it because those places are drawn from my imagination.”
Much of Russo’s fiction has explored his relationship with his mostly absent father. “All those charming, feckless men that turn up in my novels—from Sam Hall in The Risk Pool straight through to Max Roby in Empire Falls—are rooted in some way in my own father,” Russo says. “As I write in Elsewhere, I became closer to my father when I became of legal drinking age in New York, which at the time was 18.”
An only child, the young Russo had an extremely close relationship with his mother. In an early chapter of Elsewhere he vividly describes traveling with his mother on a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, where he begins to perceive that, yes, he is her anchor but he is maybe also the millstone around her neck. Fiercely independent, Russo’s mother was also very needy. Even into adulthood, when Russo, his wife and two daughters moved about the country for his academic appointments, they brought his mother to live nearby. Russo and Barbara, a person of heroic patience and empathy, often joked mordantly that they were so bound to his mother that they “never went anywhere for longer than it took for her milk to spoil.” Through writing Elsewhere, Russo has come to believe that his mother suffered from a probably treatable mental disability in a time when such a disability was impossible to acknowledge.
“Writing Elsewhere did provide me with answers to the questions that I had posed to myself about my life and my mother’s life,” Russo says at the end of the phone call. “But in terms of closure, I still haven’t shaken that sense of betrayal and self-doubt because she’s not here to defend herself. I wanted to feel vindicated in having made the right choice to tell this story and I don’t quite feel that. . . . But after consulting with Barbara and my daughters it became clear to me that this book might actually help somebody else feel less alone in the world.”