Literary Hub

Richard Russo: On the Moral Power of Regret

Back in the late 1970s, not long after I started teaching, I began having this dream where I’m heading off to a class and at the end of an impossibly long corridor I see a group of students exiting a classroom. Somehow, I know they’re mine. A note on the door when I arrive informs me that my class has been moved to another building, so I set off again. When I reach the new destination, another note awaits; my venue has again been changed. This happens over and over, until finally, exhausted, I wake up. The dream’s meaning couldn’t be more obvious—I’m literally unable to reach my students. Its genesis is also clear: Despite trying hard to be a good teacher, I knew I had a lot to learn.

Though it’s been decades since I’ve had a regular teaching gig, I still begin each fall semester with the same dream, though its meaning appears to have subtly shifted. Whereas before it was born of self-doubt, it now feels simply autumnal—that is, tinged with melancholy and regret. In truth, though I’ve missed teaching, I wasn’t temperamentally well suited to academic life and was very happy to leave it when the opportunity arose. Even when the writing life feels solitary and lonely, I can easily cheer myself up by reflecting on all English Department meetings I haven’t had to attend. But I know, too, that by the time I finally quit teaching I’d gotten better at it, which may be why the dream now feels almost accusatory, as if I’ve abandoned my post. Had I continued to find time for them, my students might’ve benefitted. I’ve cheated them.

I have another recurring dream, this one more specific and disturbing. It involves the house on Helwig Street in Gloversville, New York, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. My maternal grandparents lived in the first floor flat, my mother and I above them on the second. After going off to the University of Arizona in 1967, I returned to the house on Helwig Street for many summers to live with my grandparents and work road construction with my father. By then grandfather was ill, so I did things around the house (painting, yard work, putting on and taking off storm windows). My mother was living out West at the time, trying desperately to carve out a life of her own, though in due course she returned home and moved back into the upstairs flat.

By then my grandfather had died, and my grandmother was living on his meager pension and social security. Mom found work as a bookkeeper and for a while managed to keep her head above water, but eventually she had to move in with my grandmother so the upstairs flat could be rented for what little it would bring. By this time I was married and had a family of my own, and though I continued to visit Helwig Street whenever I could, it wasn’t often enough to be of much help, and over time the house fell into disrepair, its porches sagging, its paint peeling, the roof badly in need of repair. When costly upkeep became too much for them, we found an apartment for my mother near where we were living, and my grandmother, by now in her mid-eighties, moved in next door to my mother’s sister. The Helwig Street house was sold for what little it would bring in a declining mill town whose long suit was houses just like it.

In my recurring Helwig Street dream I’m always visiting, never living there. My grandfather has died, but my grandmother is still alive and sharing the downstairs flat with my mother, just as they’d done in real life. Given this time frame, my wife and daughters should be with me, but in the dream I’m always alone. Right from the start I’m anxious and acutely aware of all that needed doing in the house, the kinds of repairs I used to handle, upkeep that is now beyond my mother and grandmother. It’s pouring rain outside, and when the lights go out it falls to me grab a flashlight and go up into the attic where the ancient fuse box is located. I climb the dark back stairs to the second floor, and then up the narrower one to the attic. When I turn on the flashlight, its beam immediately locates the hole in the roof through which rain is pouring. I find the carboard box that contains the spare fuses, but when I open the metal utility box under the eaves I see that the panel is streaming water. Even in the dream I’m aware that to touch any of the fuses would be to invite electrocution, but I also know that it’s my job to restore the lights. When my wet fingers touch the first fuse, I start awake, my fingers tingling with imagined electric current.

The rational, waking part of my brain assures me that I’d be not just useless on the border but actually in the way. It counsels that I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do.

Scary though the scenario is, my fright quickly morphs into a profound sorrow that is completely at odds with reality. Since it was ours, the Helwig Street house has had two owners, one of whom, according to my aunt, spent considerable money on repairs. The house is probably in better shape now than it’s been since my grandfather was alive. But, of course, none of this matters. What does matter is that in my dream, I have allowed my grandfather’s house, the safe harbor of my childhood, to fall into ruin. He bought the place when my parents’ marriage was falling apart because he knew she and I would need a place to live, and this is how I’ve repaid him. Because of me, what should’ve been a refuge to my grandmother in her old age and my mother when she had nowhere else to go, is now a deathtrap. The fact that the dream doesn’t, as I said, square with literal reality is little comfort.

To my dreaming self, a house represents a failed moral obligation, and not, I’m certain, just to my family. I’ve also failed my neighbors. You see, Helwig Street was a lower middle-class enclave of first wave immigrants—Italian, Irish, Polish—assimilators who identified first as Americans, working stiffs who signed up in droves to fight in Europe and the Pacific, and who came home convinced that, having been victorious in their must-win war, America and all Americans would henceforth prosper. Their chances, they believed, were awfully good. While I tell myself that I’ve spent most of my career writing about these very folks, it could also be said that I left Helwig Street behind as soon as I could, just as I later would the academy. As a writer I’ve worked hard, won a prize, became affluent, made sure that my family was safe and provided for, but I neglected the house on Helwig Street, and now it has a hole in the roof and the rain is pouring in.

People who do unspeakable things are often haunted by them for the rest of their lives. The rest of us, it seems to me, are more likely to be haunted by what we’ve left undone—the opportunities for generosity we’ve ignored, the times we’ve used the fact that we were busy to look the other way, other times when we were just plain selfish. Even if we’ve lived reasonably well, we’re doomed to wonder if we’ve lived best.

The last two years I spent working on Chances Are…—which is in many ways a meditation on regret—I also spent wondering if I should’ve been on the Southern border, helping to relieve the unimaginable suffering of people who want nothing more than the freedom and security that people who lived on Helwig Street—my grandfather among them, a man who never once abandoned his post—willingly risked their lives to ensure. The rational, waking part of my brain assures me that I’d be not just useless on the border but actually in the way. It counsels that I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do. The more intuitive, subconscious part, however, seems hard at work on a different narrative, one that openly questions my motives, even doubts my honor. This, I suspect, though unpleasant, is exactly as it should be, for where is it written that we who are blessed should rest easy when so much hard work remains to do be done?

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