By Melissa Hale-Spencer
NEW SCOTLAND — As a young woman, Marie Russell learned about the power of forgiveness, and its force has carried her into a rich old age.
She is celebrating her 90th birthday today, March 14.
“We all go through lessons in life,” she said. “Some people handle it and other people let it ruin their lives. If their father wasn’t right or their mother wasn’t right, they get stuck in blame and never get on with their own lives. To me, going through the bad stuff was a lesson.”
The “bad stuff” for Russell included her childhood family being plunged into poverty when the stock market crashed in 1929 and an alcoholic father.
“Don’t let it ruin your life. Continue on. Don’t let it eat you up inside. That’s like an acid — no good.”
Russell was born at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. on March 14, 1923. Her father, Erich Brusit, had been in the United States Army of Occupation in Germany after World War I where he met the woman who would become his wife. He spoke German since his grandparents had emigrated to America from northern Germany.
Born in Texas, Brusit had moved with his family as a boy to a farm in Minnesota. He ran away from home to join the Army as soon as he was old enough, in 1921.
“He saw my mother…she was blonde and blue-eyed,” said Russell, her own brilliant blue eyes flashing. “It was love at first sight.”
In the United States, his young German bride, Maria, was lonely for her family as Brusit attended Army medical school and became a bacteriologist.
“My father told me, ‘I thought we should start a family; she was so lonesome for her family,’” recalled Russell, their firstborn.
The young family soon moved to Asheville, N.C. where Mr. Brusit worked in a government sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. Life was good. Two sons were born in Asheville, and Mr. Brusit had his own laboratory as well as a home for his family.
Then, on Oct. 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed. “The bank called in the loans. My father was in debt for the house and the laboratory,” said Russell. “He lost everything.”
He got a job at Sumount, a sanatorium in Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, where the family moved when Russell was 9.
“I love the Adirondacks,” said Russell. “My mother was a city girl; she hated it.”
Life was hard for the family. “My father was a chronic alcoholic…His personality changed when he was drunk,” Russell said. “He never appeared on the job drunk; my mother backed him up. He was fired from his job. We became poor.”
Mrs. Brusit went to work cleaning houses to earn a living for the family. She had learned to speak English.
“She never yelled at us, or spanked us,” said Russell. “When she said something, you did it.”
Russell went on, “My father drank, morning, noon, and night.”
She recalled one evening, when she was 14 years old. “My father gave me a quarter and said, ‘Go get me a bottle.’” She knew he wanted a bottle of “bathtub booze.” On her walk through Tupper Lake to get it, the police chief stopped her and asked why she was out after the 9 o’clock curfew. She lied and said she was on the way to the store for her mother.
“I know he didn’t believe me but he let me go,” she said of the chief.
“My father got verbally abusive to my mother,” Russell went on. “I listened to it until I was 15…I always had a mouth. I wasn’t going to take that stuff. I became very sassy.”
When she spoke up to defend her mother, Russell said, “I got hit.”
She went on, “When I was 16, I told him, don’t ever lay hands on me. I said I would kill him if he touched me. It wasn’t a nice thing to say.”
After that, her mother arranged for her to stay with a family in Syracuse, where she looked after the boy in that family as both parents worked. Then, she went to live with her grandfather in Minneapolis
“I came back; I wanted to be with my mother,” said Russell.
She loved Tupper Lake High School, particularly studying Latin and science.
Her father and mother separated; her mother moved to Albany and her father went back to Washington, D.C. “One night, my mother got a call that my father was at Johns Hopkins, beaten almost to death. They didn’t expect him to live. My mother said she couldn’t come. She had to work for a living,” recalled Russell.
She didn’t hear anything more about her father until, as a young married woman with a baby, living in a small apartment in Albany, one day she heard a knock at the door.
“There stood my father, looking absolutely gorgeous,” said Russell. “He asked me if he could please come in. I said yes. I knew he was sober.
“He said, ‘Mitz, I have changed my life.’
“He was in Johns Hopkins when he met the man who started Alcoholics Anonymous. He followed the rule to apologize to the people you hurt. I was the first one. Then he apologized to my mother….He and my mother got back together. I didn’t fight her. They spent the last 21 years of their lives together.”
Russell said of herself and her father, “We really became friends. I forgave him. So I have had nothing on the inside that I kept that would give me a bad feeling. It was only a good feeling…I really loved my father. He was very smart. And, I could see from the time I spent with my grandfather why he turned out the way he did.”
Her relationship with her husband, Farrand Russell, was as constant and blissful as the one with her father had been sporadic and difficult. They first met when she was 16 on a double date at a 10-cent movie in the theater across from her Tupper Lake home.
“Farrand made me laugh,” she said.
Her mother disapproved of her dating, and she didn’t see Farrand Russell, who lived in Long Lake, again until her senior year of high school. One Saturday night, he was at the counter of the dime store in Tupper Lake when Russell and her girlfriend walked in.
After Russell left, he caught up with her and grabbed her arm. “I’d like to take you dancing tonight,” he said.
“No,” she replied.
“He walked me all the way to my house,” recalled Russell, There, she told him, “I can’t dance.”
“I’ll teach you how,” he said, and he did.
They were married for 66 years and 22 days. “He died on Christmas Day,” said Russell. “We had a wonderful life. He was a wonderful husband and father.”
Russell had graduated from high school in 1941 and came to Albany where she worked in a state laboratory for two years.
The couple married on Dec. 3, 1943 in Atlanta, Ga. “He was in the service, the Air Corps, and stationed all over.”
After Farrand Russell was discharged in 1946, he worked as an electrician for General Electric and the couple lived in an Albany apartment.
“Housing was very tight then,” said Russell. The Russells saw an ad in the newspaper to live in a tiny old shingled house, once a schoolhouse, at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland.
“It sat among the apple trees. There was a little chicken house and I could picture fresh eggs and a garden,” recalled Russell.
The Russells happily moved to the country. And although the chickens didn’t work out as envisioned — “I killed them and ate them; they never laid any eggs,” said Russell — the garden did.
In a few years, the Russells moved to a bigger house at Indian Ladder Farms, near a pond, and lived there for 57 years, raising their daughter, Maria, and their son, Farrand.
Russell grew both vegetables and flowers in her garden. “I learned to can and make jelly and jam,” she said.
“I love to weed…When I got through, my garden was neat and clean,” she said.
Russell also said, “I just have been a busy person all my life.”
She had learned to knit from a German lady when she was 10 and had learned to crochet from a classmate at school when she was 13. (Russell had lied to her mother, because money was so precious, saying she was buying paper for school when really she was buying crochet thread.)
Russell taught herself to quilt and tat from reading books.
“To take needle and thread and create something, that pleases me,” she said. “I have drawers full of doilies and tatted stuff.”
She has made five quilts for each of her children, and two quilts for each of her seven grandchildren.
Russell lives on her own in Voorheesville and cooks for herself. “I eat exactly what I ate 50 years ago. I’m German, so I love my sauerkraut. I love my potatoes and gravy,” she said.
She went on, “I take every day as it comes. I rest if I’m tired. I read. I work on my handwork…I’m not a religious person. I don’t know who’s upstairs, but I say thank-you every day.”
Among the things she is most thankful for is her family. “I just feel so lucky. I had a wonderful life — a wonderful husband, wonderful children, and, to me, my grandchildren can’t be beat.”
She speaks frankly about where she’ll be buried — at Long Lake, next to her husband.
Until then, Russell drives herself where she wants to go. She uses a hand-carved Adirondack-style cane and moves with alacrity. One of the places she most likes to visit is the library.
“I’m an avid reader,” she said. She prefers books about history.
One of her favorites is a biography of Harry Truman. “At the time I voted for him, I didn’t think much of him,” she said.
What she has come to appreciate about Truman is his honesty. “He told the truth,” said Russell. “I detest lies.”