Danny Heitman’s 'At Random' for Sunday, March 17, 2013

BY DANNY HEITMAN

If you’re visiting this space today to find “Attic Salt,” the Ed Cullen column that appeared here for many years, then you’re sadly out of luck. Ed retired last week, and “Attic Salt” retired with him. If you missed Ed’s farewell column last week, you can read it at http://www.theadvocate.com.

Each Sunday, my “At Random” column, a longtime part of the Friday People section, will appear here, where “Attic Salt” once did.

I’ll miss reading Ed’s columns each week. Long before I saw my first “Attic Salt” columns, I heard them read aloud, thanks to a mother who relished the charming belief that good writing should be announced to everyone in the room.

My mother, who died in 2008, belonged to perhaps the last generation for which the recitation of literature was standard practice. As a girl, she’d studied in classrooms where children learned famous poems and speeches by memorizing and repeating them aloud to their classmates. From this habit grew my mother’s conviction that any good story or turn of phrase should be shared not only with the eyes of her family, but its ears as well.

After lunch each Sunday, when triple helpings of chicken and gravy had pushed everyone to the brink of sleep, my mother would begin selecting choice passages from the Sunday paper for her weekly elocutions, her readings as heartfelt as a parent performing a bedtime version of “Green Eggs and Ham.”

This would have been riveting, I suppose, if I’d still been of the age to appreciate a parent reading to me. But I was a teenager by then, and like most adolescents, I thought of my mother’s habits as something to be endured, not embraced.

Ed’s columns ranked among my mother’s favorite candidates for her public readings. Fighting drowsiness, I’d sigh and roll my eyes as Mama cleared her throat and voiced selected excerpts of “Attic Salt” for no one in particular.

Over time, though, I quietly conceded that Mama might be on to something. In reading Ed aloud, she was connecting with the nicest quality of his sentences — namely, that they sounded like talk.

Ed’s a master of conversational prose, which is why National Public Radio used his essays on its “All Things Considered” broadcasts for several years.

According to an old French proverb, the difference between reading a writer and meeting a writer is like the difference between eating duck pate and meeting the duck. The idea is that writers can be much different in person than in print.

Happily, I didn’t find the Ed Cullen I met when I came to work in the newsroom to be any different than the man I’d grown up reading. He is, like the voice behind his columns, a person who likes old things, his family, his garden, the English language.

I’ll offer some thoughts here each week, but they won’t be “Attic Salt.” Don’t blame me for that; I’m doing the best I can.

Danny Heitman can be reached at dheitman@theadvocate.com.