Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  Moreover, the worst of her personal demons was the one who dwelt in the details, and this was especially true of our plan to move to the coast. Had we been able to give her a series of dates etched in stone—for selling the Waterville house, finding a new house in Camden, locating her new apartment, and the actual physical moves themselves—she could have written them on her calendar and checked them off, one by one, the way her mother had always done with Holy Days on the liturgical calendar. But we could offer nothing that was “for sure.” Because property was more expensive on the coast, there was a real possibility we wouldn’t be able to find or afford what we were looking for—but then again maybe we’d get lucky! To further complicate matters, after a couple of mills around Waterville closed, half the town was for sale, which guaranteed that unloading our house—something we needed to do in order to buy in Camden—was going to be tricky.

  And these were just the surface complexities. Supposing we found a new place and managed to sell the old one, what would happen next? We couldn’t say with any certainty. Normally her need to be settled, to reestablish her old routines in a fresh environment, would have been trump, but there were simply too many moving parts to accurately predict how things would go. If we rented an apartment on the coast and moved her in, it might be six months or a year before we could follow, and there was no chance she’d make it that long in a strange place, with us a good hour away. If we went first, there was the possibility of a similar gap before she could follow, because senior housing here was as problematic as it had been in Waterville. And while there were more options, they were all more expensive, so she’d be more financially dependent on us. And every place we looked into had a waiting list. How long would you have to wait for an apartment in a complex of twelve units if there were three people ahead of you? Or eight people in one of twenty-five? The answer to both questions was the same: as long as it took. If she put her name on the list too soon and an apartment came available before she was ready, what then? We’d presented her with a Rubik’s Cube of possibility, the very thing we should have known she couldn’t handle. The best we could do was to assure her that we’d take care of everything when the time came. Meanwhile she only needed to be patient. It was a doomed strategy, but it was the only one we had. It was either that or …

  Over the last thirty-five years, my wife and I had taken turns bringing up the inevitable or. This time it was Barbara’s. We did have a choice, she reminded me. Either we asked my mother to live with things being unsettled until we could settle them, or we could just put our own lives on hold. We didn’t have to move to the coast to be happy. I’d quit my job at Colby, but Barbara was still employed there and liked her job. We didn’t need to move; we just wanted to. The question we had to articulate correctly and then answer carefully was the same one we’d confronted so often before. In the end, was doing what we wanted to do—what other people like us seemed to do without having to think about it—really worth it? Was the reward equal to the risk? My mother was no longer a young woman, and her health was clearly in decline. Even though we’d managed her last two moves—both of which she’d instigated—as much as she’d allowed us, it had taken her long months to recover from them. Another move—this one played under protest—might just do her in. Why not put everything on hold?

  To this persuasive argument I had a one-word answer: genetics. Yes, my mother’s health was in decline, but my grandmother had also suffered from high blood pressure, a thyroid condition, crippling arthritis, and ministrokes, and she lived into her nineties, as had her sisters. By contrast, my father hadn’t made it to his sixty-fifth birthday, and neither had a couple of his brothers, nor had Barbara’s parents. If my mother lived to be ninety, we’d be in our early sixties before we were allowed to make unencumbered decisions about our own lives. I was a Russo male, a bloodline ripe with its own genetic challenges, cancer primary among them. Add to this the environmental issue: I’d grown up in Gloversville, where cancer statistics soared off the actuarial charts. If my mother lived to be ninety, odds were good she’d outlive me. When I spoke with my cousin Greg on the phone and inquired after my aunt’s health, he always joked that these old women—his mother and mine—were going to bury us both. Except it wasn’t a joke. When in the last thirty-five years, I asked my wife, had we ever had the luxury of making a major decision purely on its merits? Of necessity we’d always had to consider my mother’s needs before our own. Surely by now we’d earned a reprieve. Didn’t we deserve the right to think about ourselves first for once? It wasn’t as if we were planning to abandon her. We would find her a nice place to live, just as we’d always done. We’d pay for what she couldn’t afford and make the move as stress-free as possible.

  I was right, of course, and Barbara admitted as much. After all, she’d been throwing the same argument at me for more than thirty years, every time it was my turn to raise the dreaded or. The problem was that I was also wrong, and we both knew that, too. Nor was I surprised when she remembered my grandfather. “What was that saying of his?” she asked. He’d always been full of aphorisms, but I knew all too well the one she was referring to. “With your grandmother, you always have a choice,” he was fond of remarking when I was a boy. “You can do things her way or you can wish you had.” He was speaking about his wife, of course, but he might have been talking about his strong-willed daughter. By the end, he was.

  THE HOUSE WE ENDED UP buying in Camden was old and elegant. Also, a potential money pit. In its most recent incarnation it had devolved into a three-family dwelling. The principal renters had lived on the ground floor in the main house, where there was a master suite with a lovely bathroom. On the second floor were two more small bedrooms, as well as a tiny apartment with its own entrance. At some point a large garage had been added at the back of the house and, above it, a second, larger apartment with a third-story loft. It wasn’t a house we were originally interested in, but Chris, our realtor, knew I was a writer and thought the loft apartment over the garage would be a perfect workspace for me. “And if you fix up the little apartment,” he added, “it might work for your mom.” Early on we’d told him what we were up against, that in addition to selling our Waterville house and finding something we could afford in Camden, we’d also need to find a place for my mother, and he’d promised to keep an eye out for a one-bedroom apartment.

  “Or not,” he said with a smile, seeing that his helpful suggestion had caused all the blood to drain from Barbara’s face. An observant breed, realtors. My wife would later become one.

  Chris was right about the loft workspace, though, and while the main house needed a lot of work, it was pretty much what we were looking for. The wiring wasn’t up to code, a costly fix, and the kitchen was mired in the Sixties. Many of the windows needed to be replaced. The real problem, however, was the tiny run-down apartment. We had no interest in renting it, so what on earth would we do, pretend it didn’t exist? On the other hand, it was one of the reasons the house was in our price range. The property had been on the market for years and, according to the seller’s agent, most prospective buyers were put off by the three-family arrangement. Eventually, he thought, it would sell to an investor who’d fix up and rent all three spaces. Because of the apartment the house was definitely wrong for us, but there was something right about it, too, something that made me not want to dismiss it out of hand. Maybe it was just that we’d been looking for months and coming up empty. At any rate, I suggested we go up and look at that apartment one more time on the theory that if we considered the house at its worst, we’d feel better about turning our backs on what we liked.

  You entered the apartment through the kitchen, and right away you thought, No, no, and again, no. The appliances were old and so grungy I immediately imagined my mother running her index finger along the surface of the stove. The stained, cracking linoleum was coming up from the floor. The living room was low ceilinged and so small it would hold little more than a sofa and coffee table, maybe a small TV in the
corner. The bedroom was the size of a walk-in closet, with room for a single bed with one bedside table or a double bed without. In the bathroom, when you sat on the toilet your knees would touch the shower on one side, the wall on the other. The only good feature was the large and lovely screened-in porch that overlooked the back patio. I went out and just stood there. In winter, you’d glimpse the ocean through the bare trees. In summers I could imagine us sitting out there reading, cooled by breezes off the water. Sweet.

  Barbara and Chris were in the hot little apartment waiting for me to come to my senses so we could leave. When I stepped inside, I got a flash. “What you’re standing in,” I said to Barbara, “is our master bedroom.”

  Chris blinked. My wife frowned. Whose master bedroom? Not hers. Not by a long shot.

  But in a heartbeat I saw she was with me, seeing in her mind’s eye what I was seeing in mine, and before I was half finished explaining, she was already ahead of me. You’d tear out the kitchen, knock down the wall that separated it from the living room, as well as the one between the bedroom and the bath. With its four tiny rooms reduced to two, the apartment could become a reasonably luxurious suite with its own private porch. Chris was grinning at us. “Moments like this,” he said, “are why I’m a realtor.”

  Instead of returning to Waterville as planned, we booked a room at a B&B, and over dinner and a bottle of wine at the local chowder house we ran the numbers, trying to contain our mounting, irrational excitement, then ran them again. It was impossible. We could afford either the property or the work needed to transform it, but not both. Not unless we did all these things over a period of years. Not unless we moved into the loft apartment over the garage while the work was being done on the main house. Not unless I sold another screenplay. Not unless we sold the Waterville house, which after a month on the market still hadn’t generated a single showing. Not unless we could find an apartment nearby for my mother. We’d have to hire a structural engineer to make sure the walls we meant to tear down weren’t load bearing, and we’d have to bring the girls to see if this was a house they could see themselves returning to in the future with children of their own. Yet somehow, in the moment when we’d seen how it might be done, how the house’s many drawbacks could be transformed into a real asset, we’d already bought it in our imaginations. Impossible had become something we’d just have to deal with.

  And my mother? Well, she hadn’t come into our thinking at all, not until we came home late one evening not long afterward to find a message from her on the answering machine, telling me to call the minute I got back, no matter what time. Okay, I thought, this is it. Now we pay. I dialed her number.

  She answered on the first ring. She’d been thinking about it for a long time, she told me, her voice rich with both challenge and mania, and had come to an important decision. She was going home.

  RETURNING TO GLOVERSVILLE yet again might have been a lunatic notion, but it was hardly a new one. The idea began to take form, as near as I could tell, in the camp we rented when we first came to Maine, after which it advanced and receded according to the cycles of her mind. The problem (and I’d been aware of this since she and I made that first journey to Arizona) was that to my mother there were two Gloversvilles—the one she was always trying to escape from when she lived there, and the other she nostalgically considered, every time she fled, as home. When she was actually in residence, it was a small, insular, uncouth, narrow-minded place that prevented her from being her truest self—free spirited, unconventional, and unfettered. Once she’d flown the coop, though, the very qualities she detested became more attractive. The smallness she so despised became cozy; it meant you didn’t need a car to live there. Your loved ones, the very people who intruded upon your privacy and always spouted unwanted advice, were a convenient block away. Seen from a distance, they weren’t so much nosy as thoughtful and caring, their concern now a safety net.

  What took me longer to understand was that just as there were two Gloversvilles, my mother also had two sisters. In reality, she and Phyllis couldn’t have been more temperamentally different, and when my mother was living there it was always their differences that defined their relationship. She saw my aunt as conventional and interfering and judgmental, qualities Phyllis inherited, she thought, from their mother. There were many bones of contention, but it particularly infuriated my mother that neither her sister nor the local man she married, my uncle Mick, seemed to have any aspirations beyond the town line. To my uncle, who’d grown up on a farm and been too young to serve in World War II, Gloversville was the big city, and he made no secret of his affection for it. Their oldest son, Greg, my cousin and boyhood friend, had gone away to college but returned to marry a local girl and settled down to a life of deflated Fulton county wages. He and his wife lived next door to my aunt and uncle, and next door to them lived Mick’s mother, Beatrice, for whom my mother had even less use than her son. That three generations were all living in the same block struck my mother, back when she’d returned to live on Helwig Street with my grandmother, as beyond perverse. They all walked into one another’s homes without knocking, freely investigating the contents of the refrigerators and helping themselves without permission. Lacking even the most rudimentary notion of privacy, they saw no reason not to comment on everyone else’s lives and day-to-day decisions. Who could bear to live like this?

  Once away from Gloversville, however, my mother immediately saw things differently, and as she grew older, her nostalgia for the very proximity that had always stifled her so became more pronounced. “How happy we were on Helwig Street,” she’d recall, her eyes misty with memory, as if we’d been cruelly banished from this Eden. “We didn’t have much money,” she’d concede, somehow imagining this had been the only impediment to our contentment, “but everything seemed so safe. Remember how we used to rap on the floor?” I did indeed. When we wanted to parlay with my grandparents or they with us, we would rap on the kitchen floor (they on the ceiling) with a broom handle, and we’d convene invisibly, but close enough to whisper—in the back hallway. At the time I regarded the broom handle as one of the many advantages to our upstairs/downstairs circumstances and assumed everyone would be envious to know how easily and efficiently we communicated, with no need even to pick up a phone. Whereas my mother always cited this broom knocking as an example of how much better our lives would be when we finally escaped Helwig Street. We’d be independent, she explained, without people beneath us who at their every whim felt entitled to so rudely summon us.

  When rational, she knew returning to Gloversville was a pipe dream, but desperation had a way of transforming every image projected in the theater of her mind, neither vague nor cloudy, as you might expect, but in brilliant high definition. Maine was all muted sepia tones, whereas Helwig Street—and Sixth Avenue, where her sister lived—seemed close enough to touch, everything painted in bright primary colors. Just as vivid in her imagination was the self she would become once she returned home. In Gloversville, she wouldn’t be pushing eighty. She’d be the age she was during her last stint, when my grandmother was still alive. To be sure, she hadn’t been in the best of health even then, but she’d managed well enough and would again.

  She’d only been in that first Farmingdale apartment a few months before she floated the idea of moving home again. It was a Saturday afternoon, after we’d done the grocery shopping, and we were watching a ball game before I headed back to Waterville. She’d been out of sorts the whole time.

  “We might as well face facts,” she finally said. “I hate Maine. I never should’ve come here.” I had to smile, given how she made it sound like she’d done it all on her own. “It was a mistake. I should’ve gone straight to Gloversville from Illinois. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

  “Okay,” I said, “but while we’re facing facts, here’s another. You also hate Gloversville. You have your whole life. The last time you went back there, it was—in your own words—a terrible mistake.”

  Th
ere were few things my mother liked less than having such statements thrown back at her, so this put her into a dark funk. “It’s true I’ve always hated Gloversville,” she conceded half an hour later when the game ended and I rose to leave, “but things there have changed.”

 
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