I was filled with sadness the other day when I got off the phone after cancelling my 94-year-old mother’s New York Times subscription.
Some of my response has to do with her decline. She no longer reads the newspaper as she once did from cover to cover every day. Now, when I go over to her apartment I see the Times sitting there untouched.
But my emotion extended well beyond my mother’s current health issues. Every family has threads that weave themselves into a tapestry – where they came from and where they settled; births, deaths, jobs; triumphs and setbacks; perhaps a larger than life parent or grandparent whose influence reverberates through subsequent generations.
In our family one of those threads was the New York Times. I recall how my father read it every morning. Sitting at the dining room table, the paper – back then the format was wider than it is today (in 2007 it cut its width by an inch and a half) – was spread out in front of him like a map of the world.
My hunch is that some of that was habit that came from having worked at the Times in his youth and reading the night owl edition hot off the presses. He started as an office boy for publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger in the early 1940’s and was rehired after the war where he was assigned to the newspaper’s Paris and Frankfurt bureaus. Returning to New York, he worked on the paper’s picture desk. He left the Times in 1955 to start his own advertising agency.
But he never lost his affection for the newspaper, nor the habit of starting off his day with it. In our family it was as much wallpaper as newspaper, the backdrop to our lives, delivered to the front door each morning. My father would no sooner neglect the paper than he would forget to wear a raincoat and galoshes in a downpour.
And that reverence for the Times filtered down to me. I can’t remember when I started reading the paper in earnest. It might not have been until college. But the die had been cast years earlier.
And it wasn’t just about maintaining tradition. It was the notion, if transmitted only subliminally, that responsible citizenship – not even responsible citizenship; it was more like good hygiene – required one to stay abreast of the national discourse.
I’ve written for the Times over the years. I was proud when I became a stringer for them in college, even earning a few bucks. And I well recall my excitement and pride standing in their newsroom and being handed a printout by an editor when my first byline appeared in 1994.
I have photographs of my father in that same newsroom on West 43rd Street, though it had changed beyond recognition over the years, the noise of typewriters and newswires replaced by the near silence of computer keyboards. Not to mention that in 2007 the newspaper migrated to Eighth Avenue and a modern office building opposite the Port Authority bus terminal.
Even when I went to work for the Wall Street Journal as a columnist – a newspaper whose reporting is as good and in some areas better than the Times – my affection and loyalty remained with “The Gray Lady,” as the newspaper is affectionately known.
And how could it not? While I was named after my father my youngest brother James was named after Times columnist James Reston.
I don’t remember my mother being quite as focused a reader as my father, but she must have been. Naming my brother after James “Scotty” Reston was her idea. And when my brothers and I were born the Times ran small announcements, paid I assume, and not entirely uncommon in those days.
I suspect my parents felt that our delivery wasn’t complete until the Times was delivered the next morning, heralding our arrival in the “Newspaper of Record.”
When my father, who was also Horatio Alger’s biographer, died in 2005 the Times ran a news obituary. I knew it would have meant a lot to my dad.
Journalism has changed a lot in the meantime. By the time the Times crosses our transom I’ve already read many of its stories online. Sometimes I don’t even crack the physical newspaper.
Among the reasons I don’t cancel the print subscription is inertia, habit, but also a small sense of well being, that no matter how disturbing the news, seeing it organized and prioritized by the Times’ editors in black and white offers the confidence that order will triumph over chaos, that corruption will be called to account.
That explains some of my sadness regarding my mother. Once you stop reading the Times in our family it feels as if you’ve bowed out of the conversation.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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