In Richard Russo‘s new memoir, Elsewhere, he tracks his codependent relationship with his mother from his childhood to the months following her death. Richard grew up as the only child of a can-do single mother in the aging mill town of Gloversville, NY. It was his mother who was among the first women working at GE in nearby Schenectady, NY. And years later it was his mother who rode with him across the country in a beat-up car to college in Arizona. Both were ready for a new start in life. And as Rick worked his way through his academic and fiction writing career, earning literary awards, and earning their way out of the working class, mom insisted on living near her “rock” of a son, and insinuating herself into his life. Afterall, she had nobody else.
As I read this book, I thought of my father caring for his mother (both single) at the end of her life, and of many of my friends currently caring for their parents. It is so difficult not to feel resentment or a sense of “burden” as the sole caregiver. Aside from recent work on “zen caretaking,” most of us have a hard time with dependency in a culture that values the opposite. And that’s just the tension that exists in Russo’s tale – a mother who is a die-hard stubborn independent continues this performance for some time, despite functional potential to the contrary. How does a caregiver honor that constant push for autonomy while at the same time being genuine and true?
Richard doesn’t answer these questions – it is only, perhaps, in writing the book after her death, and looking back on their parallel trajectories, that strands of understanding and forgiveness emerge. The reader benefits from starting at the beginning in Gloverville, NY, where mom fought hard for health, love, work, and family. Learning the ins and outs of their relationship as mother and son helps one to understand how the Russos negotiate the future together, as the stubborn yet resilient Joan and Rick together confront hurdles associated with genetics, health, aging, and even dying. In some ways, Joan was unlucky when it came to health and love. A generation later, Rick was the opposite.
Many readers will probably relate to the traditional caregiving moments, especially when the story becomes a resigned “we moved mom to this place, and she didn’t like it, so we moved her again.” But under-girding the moves, the interpersonal tensions and challenges are the more interesting part of the memoir – the ways in which selves are woven into places and rituals and social mores.
I wanted this book to double as a memoir about one of my favorite authors, as well as a how-to book for caring for our parents. In many ways, it delivers on both. Most of all, it reminds us that whatever stage we find ourselves at, we all tremble constantly on the tightrope between autonomy and dependence.