Your mother sends you articles about local bear sightings and premature quintuplets. Your father mails bulletins on faulty toaster ovens and the cost of home heating. Examine the perplexing phenomenon of the family clipping service.
It usually starts when your parents retire. The clippings arrive in the mail—articles about 401(k)s, the dangers of Botox, the energy rating of your air conditioner. These well-meaning bulletins, carefully cut from newspapers and magazines, often have a note from your mother or father scrawled across the top, saying "Just in case" or "Worth a look." The further you find yourself removed from your parents' care—both chronologically and geographically—the faster the notes pour in, and what starts as a trickle becomes a flood when you reach your 30s.
By then, of course, you actually are interested in clutter-busting hints and how to prevent bone loss.
All of our friends have a story: One receives clippings from her in-laws culled from The New York Times—the very paper where she works as a senior editor. Adam, a screenwriter, gets dispatches from his father on health issues with comments written on the top: "If you don't take potassium supplements," his dad jotted on one, "you are only fooling yourself."
In our informal survey, the clippings break down into just a few categories:
Medical Fearmongering These articles feature an unlikely but potentially fatal risk, like "Gum Disease: The Silent Killer," "The Perils of Throw Rugs," or "What You Don't Know About Pâté." Lisa, a pharmaceutical salesperson, was puzzled when she received a note in the mail titled "Hepatitis: The Insidious Spread of a Killer Virus." "In case you're thinking about getting a tattoo," wrote her mother on the top. (Lisa hadn't ever contemplated any form of body art.) Our friend Erica, a nurse from Chicago, remembers, "One time my mother sent my husband a clipping about tea tree oil healing toe fungus. Let's just say he was a little embarrassed that I'd told my mother about this."
Your Inevitable Financial Ruin These are the flashing red lights of parental clippings—usually sent by our fathers, dealing with tax shelters, investments, and retirement planning. The tone of the notes are doomsday-slash–smiley face. Jancee recently received an article about a Roth IRA, with a Post-it that read "I know you don't want to die old and broke! Love, Dad." Julie's father sent along a cautionary tale from his local paper about a man who filed his own tax return rather than entrust it to a professional and went on to owe the IRS $1.5 million. (Her father tucked his accountant's phone number in the envelope.)
Potential Hazards From our parents' perspective, ordinary life is one vast minefield, and they are ever vigilant. We'd never leave our house if we took seriously every bulletin our parents sent: ads for carbon monoxide tests, tips on fire prevention safety, the dangers of standing in front of the microwave. (Actually, after reading these clippings, we wouldn't feel safe in our homes without a hazmat suit.)
But when our parents really mobilize is in times of crisis. And for many parents, your being single—no matter how happy you are—qualifies as a hazard. Jennifer, who's unattached in a big city, says that her all-time favorite parental clipping is about unmarried women: "Single, Successful & Dateless!" "What's most disturbing is that it's from a Dallas newspaper," she says. "And my parents are in Oklahoma City." To this day, she doesn't know how they found it.
Some parents feel that their missives are too urgent for ordinary mail. Tracy, a recently divorced mother of three from Connecticut, received a fax machine from her parents so their clippings could arrive at lightning speed. "I never imagined that my personal travails would turn into a hobby for my parents," she says. "As my marriage started to sour, they barraged me with articles ranging from how to detect a cheating spouse to how to protect your assets. They even sent me articles on the divorce of former GE chairman Jack Welch." On top of that fax, Tracy's mother suggested that she contact Mrs. Welch's attorney, presumably to keep her off skid row.
Next: More common clippings and what they mean"Funny!" We especially like bulletins from the hometown paper—usually human interest stories of a goat befriending a rooster, or about the local chapter of the Polar Bear swim club—with "Funny!" invariably scribbled on top. Two weeks after September 11, Julie's mother sent the cover story of the Glens Falls, New York, paper, an article on a local man who helped popularize disco. She thought it'd be a comfort to Julie to know that in some part of the world life was beginning to go on. Jancee's father recently passed along a review of Cranford, New Jersey's new sushi restaurant. "Good as NY but no parking fees!" he wrote. And then there are the cartoons: Three of our friends received the same New Yorker cartoon of a dog telling his canine pal that "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." "The Family Circus," "Cathy," and "Baby Blues" all seem to speak to parents. ("Who does this remind you of?" is usually the standard commentary written on the top.)
Buying a New Whatever Although their appliances are from the Cold War era, our parents somehow know the foam capacity factor of the latest cappuccino maker. Nothing gives Jancee's father more pleasure than her mentioning she's in the market for a new dishwasher or a vacuum cleaner. He races to his stack of Consumer Reports, which he's archived back to the early nineties, highlights the specs—efficiency, cost, user ratings—and mails them off as fast as he can. Fathers have a horror of potentially faulty appliances. "I told my dad I needed a new toaster oven," says Heather, a Boston chef. "I immediately got reviews for several, and written in red pen next to the one that I'd planned to buy was the warning 'This toaster has been known to burn the tops of corn muffins.'"
Hidden among the tips for low-cost moisturizers (Crisco! Olive oil!) and "101 Uses for Grass Clippings" is one unmistakable message, and it's that our parents want us to know they're thinking about us. And they're on the case. Even with the small stuff. For mothers, especially, these notes are about connecting, the equivalent of a daily phone call. It's a way of saying "I, unlike your friends, remember that in 1992 you mentioned that you liked cats, so please enjoy these feline-related clippings." For our fathers, the goal seems to be preparedness. Jancee once asked her dad, "Why the onslaught of clips from the Kiplinger financial newsletter?" He said, "We don't want you to make the same mistakes that we did." Faraway dads can't inspect your tires or make sure your fire alarm is up to code, but even from a distance, they can put some things in order.
When your folks live elsewhere, your day-to-day lives don't overlap. And you know what? Crisco works pretty well, and it's cheaper than Crème de la Mer.