family history

Googling My Mother

By John Dickerson
Sunday, October 22, 2006

One summer morning last year, a picture of my mother's grave appeared in my e-mail inbox. The headstone looked pinker than I remembered, and the grass had grown back around it since the burial. The "Beloved Wife and Mother" inscription struck me as odd. Had it always been there? It seemed antiquated, like something you'd see in a small-town cemetery. These are the details you seize on when you're confronted by Section 3, grave 1316-A-LH before your first cup of coffee.

I had asked for it. I was writing "On Her Trail," a book about my mother, Nancy Dickerson, which was published last week. Early in the process I had instructed a few Internet search engines to make a daily sweep of the Web and to e-mail me whenever they found something relevant. Mom had been a famous reporter, so I knew I'd get some response. That day, she had been discovered on a Web site dedicated to those buried at Arlington Cemetery. (My mother qualified for burial there because my stepfather, John Whitehead, was a commander in the Navy.)

I was writing the book to figure out who my mother was. That might seem like a silly enterprise; when I was growing up, everyone knew who she was. She had been the first female network correspondent for CBS and the first female star of Washington's television news corps. But I had missed most of her career. I was born when Mom was 41 and by the time I was old enough to understand news, her stardom had faded. There were no videotapes of her newscasts during the '60s and '70s, just pictures on our piano of her with presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

Mom and I were enemies for the first part of the 27 years we knew each other. I moved out of Merrywood, our famous house, at age 14 when my parents divorced, and I never lived with her again. But our cold war ended soon after I joined her profession in 1993. We became pals, and for a few years traded daily gossip. We didn't talk about the past, focusing only on the news in front of us. Then, in January 1996, she had a brutal stroke. A year and a half later, it killed her.

The initial basket of Internet search results brought back items I'd never seen -- footage of Mom narrating the arrival of John Kennedy's body as it was brought to Andrews Air Force Base from Dallas, and an account of an interview with Richard Nixon. The eBay alert found copies of her autobiography, her NBC portrait, and a 1964 Saturday Evening Post article published four years before I was born.

The bulletins from the Web soon slowed to a few each week. New deliveries meant someone had just referred to her in a newspaper or magazine. Sometimes an old posting would emerge, something that had been missed in the initial trawl, such as the picture of her childhood home or a 1960 profile from her college alumni magazine. I knew the delay came from a quirk in the software, but such finds felt special and hard won, as though they'd been unearthed from behind an old can of nails in the back of someone's musty garage.

Mom kept a lot, too. After she died I received 20 boxes of her journals and newspaper clippings and photographs from her New York offices. She saved the rice from Luci Johnson's 1966 wedding and the 800-page report she'd worked on in 1956 as a clerk for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She was a C-SPAN bag lady.

But what you hold on to yourself differs from what others keep about you. The automated e-mails captured the enduring impact -- both meaningful and frivolous -- of her achievements. A 1961 news clipping named her among the best-coiffed women in America -- hardly worth rewriting the tombstone for. Judith Shellenberger's story, though, might be. In November 2005, the Syracuse foundation director attended a White House youth conference and had breakfast with Laura Bush. In a newspaper article about her experience, Shellenberger reflected on her career and said that my mother had been her inspiration.

"I wanted to be Nancy Dickerson," she told her local paper. I wrote her to ask what she meant. "Nancy Dickerson changed my whole life by inspiring me to pursue my dreams," she replied. "My whole career has centered on the motivation your mother gave me. The fact that I, too, could be a strong career woman."

I had heard this sentiment before, but never really believed it. Growing up in Washington, I had heard many earnest and meaningless compliments -- it's our folk language here. But Shellenberger's story seemed more authentic and objective for having been unsolicited. Suddenly I was struck by the numbers of similar stories I'd heard but never listened to.

The new information was almost always surprising, but what was most powerful was how it arrived. I'd never written a book before, but I'd written plenty of profiles. Doing so meant sitting with my pile of books and papers and interview notes and following a thread until I'd forced it into squeaky shape like a balloon animal. You know what you're looking for, or at least you know that you're looking. But the alerts didn't work like that. They were off fishing for me and the minute they hooked something they brought it back and served it up, without a filter and on their own time. Since I carry a BlackBerry (or it carries me), they were even with me on the ride to work or blinking just before I put out the bedside light.

I had shoved away my mother and her fame during my adolescence, her every letter and phone call an outrageous interruption. Now, I longed for her intrusions. Almost all that arrived came from the time in her life that I had missed. Combined with my slog through the materials she left behind, the woman on my BlackBerry became more real than the one who had pasted back my cowlick and taken me to the doctor.

Now the book is done, but the alerts continue. They've turned into vanity events, letting me know about reviews and reactions to the book. They've lost their magic. Still, the parallels of our lives, now wound together in new ways, continue to surprise me. Though no one planned it this way, the final deadline for my manuscript fell on my birthday. And last week, I saw Mom's headstone again, this time in person, on the ninth anniversary of her death.

john@johndickerson.com

John Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.


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