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Headlines and lifelines

Published December 7, 2003

Yesterday somebody named Miss Sheila called to cancel my mother's subscription to our local newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her MasterCard number was no longer valid, I was told. Actually, I'd canceled the card in the flurry of paperwork I've been doing. Several months ago my mother died at age 79. More than anything else, acknowledging that she's no longer reading the paper slammed it home: She's gone. I'd been busy in my role as the dry-eyed executor, but after hanging up with Miss Sheila, I broke down.

Reading the newspaper was a daily ritual for everyone in my family. There the paper was when I first began to crawl, folded on the Moroccan hassock under the floor lamp next to the rocking chair. Its pages linked us to the community, the city, and the vast world beyond our downtown Creole neighborhood, and formed the basis for most dinner-table and phone conversation. "Did you see in the paper where . . ." is how we approached the great issues of the day, from communism and war to the latest shakeup at the Sewerage & Water Board.

From headlines to classified, my mother read the paper with a pair of scissors. She began to enclose clippings inside every letter when I moved away to San Francisco, afraid I'd forget my native language.

Even when I ventured on to the European, Asian, and Latin American cities where I've spent much of my adult life, the clippings kept coming, an umbilical cord to home: wedding announcements, gumbo recipes, news of my alma mater, local scandals, nostalgic features about Mardi Gras parades or the restored carousel in City Park or the closing of downtown department stores. After tearing open my mother's envelopes in those exotic climes, I'd slip into a warm, familiar bath of obituaries and Winn-Dixie ads.

Sitting on the banks of the Ganges in India among loin-clothed yogis chanting Sanskrit prayers, it did my heart good to flip over the articles she sent to learn that Boston-butt pork roast was on Labor Day special, or that poor Clotilde "MawMaw" Boudreau would be sadly missed by her 11 grandchildren.

When my mother decided it was high time for me to start saving money, she enclosed financial-section articles about IRAs and interest rates, annotated with exclamation points. And when she wanted to tempt me to return home, she sent ribbons of style-section columns about Jazz Fest or the French Quarter. "Wouldn't you love to live there????" she'd scrawl above the glamorous photo of some renovated courtyard. Any mention of Lee Grue, Andrei Codrescu, or other writer friends would come underlined and asterisked. If you weren't busy wasting your life on the Ramblas of Barcelona or the Great Wall of China, she meant to say, you could be reading your poems and stories to appreciative audiences right here in New Orleans.

My mother's patient voodoo of creased newsprint eventually worked. Several years ago, I followed her path of clippings, like a trail of crumbs, home. Even then, whenever I'd visit her in the assisted-living facility, she'd pull out the bottom left-hand drawer of her chifforobe, crammed with articles she'd been saving for me.

"But Mother," I'd protest, "I live here now and usually read the paper."

"Every day?"

"Well, mostly on weekends."

"Bet you missed this piece about that Anne Rice woman buying a Catholic church. Now what do you think about THAT?" She knew I didn't want to gossip about family or friends. This was her way of making us neighbors again.

After she went to Schoen's Funeral Home to pick out her coffin (and bummed a ride home in the hearse), she became worried about grave robbers. As the scandal broke about a ring of cemetery thieves who fenced stolen tomb decorations to antique stores, she saved me a packet of clippings in her chifforobe drawer chronicling the investigation, as a prelude to the argument, "Don't you think we should have those urns on the tomb engraved with our name?"

The morning she died at Ochsner Hospital, I entered my mother's eerily empty apartment to find the newspaper half-opened on the flowered bedspread. She'd been scanning the weather forecast on the back page of the sports section. I folded the paper tenderly and tucked it inside my shoulder bag, to peruse later at home.

There would be no more clippings. Now I was on my own.

I want everyone reading this column to cut it out and mail it to your mother or grandma or MawMaw, if you're still lucky enough to have one. They are still in the rocking chair beside the floor lamp, waiting to hear from you.

But if your family is anything like mine, they will already have sent it to you.

- James Nolan is an alumnus of Eckerd College, where he was writer-in-residence for several years, and currently teaches at the Loyola Writing Institute at Loyola University in his native New Orleans.

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 10:16:09]

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