By Brian Russell
On January 17, 1979, my adoptive father summoned Mom, my brother Scott, and me into the living room. He had an announcement.
“Get your coats,” he demanded. “We’re going out. I’d like to leave in about ten minutes, so don’t dawdle.” With that, he retreated into his study.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked Mom.
“I don’t know any more than you do, but you heard your Dad, get your things together.”
Scott and I grabbed our winter coats, got into our boots, and waited in the back hallway that led to the garage. When Dad appeared, he was carrying an attaché case, which struck me as unusual. I asked him what was in the case and he didn’t answer, saying simply, “Get in the car boys, your mother is right behind me.”
I was 15 years old and didn’t much appreciate being referred to as a boy. My younger brother Scott had turned 14 less than a week earlier. I don’t think he liked being labeled “a boy” either.
We went into the garage - Scott first, then me. I walked around the car to climb into the back seat behind the passenger seat, where Mom would sit. That spot in the 1976 Toyota Corolla offered the greatest distance from Dad, which was the way I wanted it. Scott got in behind the driver’s seat and just as I was opening the car door, I saw Dad carefully putting his attaché case inside the trunk. My curiosity about what was in the case grew as I watched him carefully stow it, wedging it in between the spare tire and the left rear wheel before closing the trunk with a soft thwump!
Right after Dad shut the trunk, Mom came out of the house and got in the car, asking, “John, where are we going?” Dad backed the car out of the garage and steered it up the long, curving driveway and through the gravel parking lot of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. As he turned right onto Baseline Road heading north, he quietly replied, “You’ll see.”
After that, silence.
The snow tires whined on the wet, newly plowed road. They made a whirring sort of sound that was rather pleasant compared to the brittle silence that filled the car. It certainly beat what I didn’t want to believe I was feeling, but there it was: fear. I was afraid of what might happen this evening, afraid it might be my last.
Dad turned left on Bedell Road. An unpleasant memory from another car ride rushed to mind, an incident that occurred on a summer evening in 1973. John Russell’s first marriage produced four children: Jenny, Julie, Christopher, and John Michael, who were, respectively, nine days, two years, six years, and eight years older than me. Despite our age difference, John Michael was the stepsibling with whom I had the closest relationship. By 1973, he was living in Boston, studying opera at the New England Conservatory of Music. I had taken his leaving hard, and that summer evening I felt his absence deeply.
The rest of our combined family, however, was packed into Dad’s 1969 midnight blue Buick Estate station wagon. We’d had dinner out, to celebrate a birthday perhaps, or more likely because the girls were in town. Julie and Jenny lived with their mother, Carol, in New Mexico most of the year, coming to visit for a week or two around Christmas, and for two months every summer. It seemed like we did the most fun things when they were in town, like bowling, boating and eating out. (We did those things at other times, as well, but Dad often didn’t participate when the girls weren’t visiting.)
Riding home from the restaurant, I stared out the car window, watching the road and the buildings as they passed by. I began to recognize some neighborhood landmarks and sensed that we might be headed toward Carvel, a favorite ice cream place just down the street from my grandfather’s house. I couldn’t help my nine-year-old self and blurted out, “Dad, are we going to Carvel?”
All sound stopped. My brothers and sisters listened intently for a reply from the paterfamilias. “Well,” he began in a stern voice, “We were going to stop for ice cream, but since you asked, now we won’t!”
Chris slammed his fist into my right arm, just above my elbow. “Thanks a lot, jerk,” he sneered as his fist made contact. I kept silent, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing how badly my arm hurt or to mess things up further.
Trying to ignore the pain in my arm, I wondered how Dad could be so mean as to deprive everyone of ice cream simply because I had asked if we could stop for some. This certainly contradicted what he preached from the pulpit, “Ask and ye shall receive.” What happened to that? I wondered. When had that become: “Ask-and-it-shall-not-be-given-to-you-despite-the-fact-that-I-was-going-to-give-it-to-you-but-now-since-you-asked-I-won’t?!?”
If it couldn’t be a surprise, he was no longer interested in whether or not we would enjoy ice cream. Since I had committed the cardinal sin of denying him his surprise, he denied all of us the treat.
Now six-and-a-half years later, I’m taking a car ride again with Dad and the family to some unknown destination, and the atmosphere inside is tense, even threatening. The headlights of an oncoming truck illuminated the side of Dad’s face, and I noticed a bead of sweat dripping down his eyebrow despite the bitter cold outside. Dad made a soft right onto Grand Island Boulevard, which led to the onramp of Highway 190, the Interstate that bisected Grand Island. Perhaps we’re going to Niagara Falls? I wondered. But on such a cold night, that didn’t make sense.
I felt a grip of fear rise up again as Dad guided the car onto 190 North, heading for the North Grand Island Bridge. What was in the case? A gun? A knife?
Mom turned to Dad, saying, “John, I really wish you’d tell us where we’re…”
“Don’t ask,” he interrupted.
The North Grand Island Bridge was the one people jumped from when they were really serious about killing themselves. The current of the Niagara River on the north side of the island was ten to twelve miles per hour and got faster by the foot as the water rushed into the rapids leading to Niagara Falls. If the impact of hitting the water didn’t kill a jumper, it was a near certainty that drowning would. And if the jumper miraculously didn’t perish upon impact, there was next to no chance of surviving the rapids or the trip over the Falls.
For this reason, there were far more suicide attempts from the South Bridge. There, the current was a mere couple of miles an hour and several people had survived the fall. My Dad himself had, on more than one occasion been called in the middle of the night and summoned to the bridge in order to talk a potential jumper down. At this, he’d never failed.
I found the sound of the tires driving over the steel seams of the bridge soothing: “ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump.” The steadiness of that rhythm usually comforted me, but this evening it only fueled my fear. As I listened to the steady, rhythmic sound, I wondered what amount of despair it would take for someone to jump. How much pain or hurt or loneliness was simply too much to bear?
Once over the bridge, Dad took the first exit – the Robert Moses State Parkway, the road to Niagara Falls. Traveling west on the Parkway, I looked across the river at the northwestern tip of Grand Island, the part of the island that is eroding most quickly. It is here that the east and west channels of the Niagara reunite and the river begins its 55 foot descent toward Niagara Falls.
The Robert Moses Parkway follows the contours of the river as it develops into stunning white water rapids. Riding alongside the rapids, I kept my focus on the river, where the luminous glow of the white caps seemed to explode out of the darkness of that bitterly cold January night.
Dad took the 4th Street exit off of the Parkway, driving north past the old Nabisco factory. Two blocks later, he took a right onto Rainbow Boulevard. We were very close to Niagara Falls now. But before reaching the Falls, he turned right into the parking lot of a cavernous conservatory called the Wintergarden.
The Wintergarden was a stunning asymmetrical triangular glass and steel structure that seemed to shoot out of the ground. One side of the triangle consisted of eight enormous glass panels running the full depth of the building and leading, diagonally, up to a 120-foot peak. The other side had five panels, giving the structure asymmetry and heightening the power of the peak above. It had opened two years earlier, and was one of the first major buildings designed by the Argentine-American architect César Pelli, who would go on to design the famous Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Inside this massive glass-enclosed atrium were more than seven thousand trees and tropical plants along with several waterfalls that whispered into pools stocked with exotic tropical fish. The Wintergarden provided a taste of tropical summer right in the middle of the fierce western New York winter landscape. Why did Dad want to leave us in suspense?
Dad got out of the car without a word and proceeded to the back of our car. He carefully lifted the attaché case out of the trunk with both hands, before transferring it to his left hand. Scott and I exchanged a furtive glance. I imagined the headline: “Minister kills family and self in bloody scene at the Wintergarden.” I imagined parishioners quoted in the story, saying, “Father Russell was always such a nice man. No one could have imagined he’d do anything like this. Why we all thought he just adored Mary and those boys!”
Dad motioned us to follow him and the three of us silently obeyed.
We entered the Wintergarden and Mom broke the silence, saying, “Oh, John, it really is spectacular, isn’t it?”
Dad did not reply.
The place really was beautiful. It was peaceful and serene.
I don’t recall any other people being there on that cold January night. Given that it was a Wednesday night around eight o’clock, it’s entirely possible we were the only visitors inside the Windergarden that night.
Dad barely seemed to notice the beautiful surroundings as he walked briskly toward the staircase and began his ascent. All of the steel inside the Wintergarden was painted a bright salmon red, which seemed to make the green of the trees and plants shimmer in contrast. Built in and among the tropical plants and trees that soared to the ceiling were several landings where visitors could sit and reflect on the tranquil scene. The highest levels felt like balconies or verandahs, offering beautiful views of the tropical garden and, in the distance, through the glass, the mist from the Falls themselves. Staircases of expanded steel led from one level to the next. As we followed Dad, it became clear he was leading us to the top landing, a narrow ledge perhaps seven or eight feet wide and some 110 feet above ground.
I had a new fear now.
He’s not going to shoot us; he’s going to push us off the top floor and we’ll fall to our deaths. Maybe he’s figured out some way to make it look like an accident!
I felt as if Scott and I were ascending a staircase to a guillotine or a hangman’s noose. Would he spare Mom or kill her too?
When we reached the top, Dad strode over to a shiny black circular metal table with four matching chairs. He ushered us into our seats: Mom across from him, Scott and I on either side.
He placed the attaché case on the center of the tabletop and slowly released its latches. First left, then right. This is it, I thought, this is the end. And, I haven’t even had sex yet! Life is so unfair…
What Did lifted out of his attaché case weren’t the weapons I feared: a bottle of Lancers Rosé, four plastic cups, a round of unleavened bread, and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Finally, Dad spoke. “Mary, I thought it would be nice if we renewed our wedding vows on this, our tenth anniversary. And, since Scott and Brian weren’t at our wedding ten years ago, I thought it fitting that they be our only witnesses.”
My mother looked at him with conflicted eyes. There was warmth, yes, but also what looked to me to be a deep sadness in her dark brown eyes. Perhaps she, too, had been afraid.
After the briefest of pauses, she said, “That sounds very nice, John.”
Scott and I listened to the familiar words pass between Mom and Dad: “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”
After they renewed their vows, Dad led us through the Holy Communion, with the unleavened bread and Lancers Rosé playing their roles as the body and blood of Christ. I’ve never been particularly religious, despite having spent several years serving as an acolyte in Dad’s church. But I liked the taste of both the bread and the wine, and I was no longer feeling afraid. I was feeling - what was it – pity?
Even at fifteen, I saw this for what it was: Dad’s last, desperate attempt to save his and my mother’s troubled marriage. This act of desperation seemed to me little more than a tacit admission that the marriage had passed the point of repair. A few months later, the marriage ended and Mom, Scott, and I moved to a small ranch house on Bedell Road around the corner from the rectory.
More than thirty years have passed since that night my 15-year-old self feared for my life at the hands of my adoptive father. I carry some amount of shame for what I felt, for what I believed my stepfather might do to us. But it’s the irony of that night in the Wintergarden that continues to haunt me.
The failure of Mom and Dad’s marriage, I think, can largely be blamed for dad’s obsessive need for secrecy and control. Throughout their marriage, Dad had engaged in repeated acts of infidelity. (I was not aware of these affairs for most of those years. But by then my brother and I had our suspicions.) He had a constant need to be validated and his surest source of validation was found in asserting his sexual prowess.
My mother once told me that what most upset her about Dad’s affairs was the emotional abandonment she felt. I think on one level she knew that he was constitutionally incapable of monogamy. But if he’d been able to have his affairs and not abandon my mother emotionally, I suspect she would have been okay with it, or at least would have accepted it.
Why? Because there was no doubt about one thing: John Russell was my mother’s one great love. She knew he was flawed. She worried sometimes that he was not an attentive father to his adopted sons. But there was something about his intellect, drive, and passion that she found irresistible.
All divorces are the results of many causes, of course – innumerable fissures and tears, disappointments and disconnects. But Dad’s penchant for secrecy and need for control shut everyone out – his children, his colleagues – even the woman who loved him the most – my mother. Yet, even Mom finally had enough of his duplicitous behavior, cloaked in secrecy and silence. What should have been a sacred act of renewing their love and commitment to each other inside what seemed an almost divinely inspired building was instead John Russell’s last pitiful display of domination and power over a family who now saw him for what he wasn’t – a faithful husband, a good father.
The Wintergarden doesn’t exist anymore. In 2003, the City of Niagara Falls sold the building to a private developer who replaced all the greenery with batting cages, a café, and video games; naming it “Smokin’ Joe’s Family Fun Center.” By 2007, that business failed. Today, the glass-enclosed atrium sits bereft of lovers or laughter or families or plants - a vast void.
That night at the Wintergarden remains seared in my memory.
Many years later, Dad acknowledged there had been infidelity. He seemed visibly shaken when I reminded him of the Carvel incident.
In advance of the publication of “Winter Garden” in Ten Spurs, Vol. 6, I asked both Mom and Dad if they wished to comment about my essay. Mom said, “That evening was a pivotal event and one of the saddest wedding anniversaries I ever spent. The affairs contributed to my losing faith and trust in the marriage.”
Dad said, “Much of what you’ve written is a product of your feelings and emotions at the time. I regret what you experienced back then.”
I understand that “Winter Garden” resurrects painful memories. But they are mine. They capture what I felt as a boy. And, despite all of it, John Russell is the only man I’ve ever called Dad.