Mississippi native Teresa Nicholas spent a career in publishing bringing others’ stories and ideas to life. She is now an award-winning writer herself.
The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters recently named Nicholas the first-ever winner of its award for Life Writing for her 2021 book “The Mama Chronicles.” The new category was developed to distinguish memoirs from other works of nonfiction.
Nicholas is pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women through its low-residency program.
“The Mama Chronicles” is Nicholas’ third book and serves as a complement to “Buryin’ Daddy,” her debut memoir. In between these two works about her parents, Nicholas wrote a biography of the famed Mississippi writer Willie Morris, who shares her hometown of Yazoo City.
In “The Mama Chronicles,” Nicholas describes the U-turn she took in her life at 48, when she and her spouse Gerard Helferich left their jobs and relocated to a small city in Mexico to pursue writing full-time.
But as her mother’s health began to fail, many trips to Mississippi from San Miguel de Allende ensued. During that time, Nicholas sought to better understand her mother and finally unearth family stories that had never been shared.
Nicholas’ retelling of the challenges of her mother’s final years will resonate with those who have cared for an aging loved one — particularly expat Mississippians who have found themselves making frantic travel plans to get home due to a family medical crisis.
For Nicholas, it meant that the belongings she put in storage in the New York area would be left behind for 11 years instead of the six months initially planned.
“We intended to go back to New York, but my mother got sick,” Nicholas told The Dispatch in an interview. “I probably wouldn’t have come home then if she hadn’t. Maybe later in life? I don’t know.”
Nicholas eventually bought a house in Jackson and lives part-time in Mississippi and Mexico. She plans to complete her MFA at MUW in the coming years.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Of your three books, two deal intimately with your parents. What led you to focus on those two relationships in your life?
Well, our relationships with our parents are two of the most important in our lives. In my father’s case, I had unresolved personal issues, hence the title “Buryin’ Daddy.” But it’s not a memoir of retribution, rather of forgiveness.
My mother is a different story. In “The Mama Chronicles,” I wanted to introduce her to the world, so that others could see her bravery and sense of humor and her other outstanding qualities, such as resilience.
Willie Morris famously grew up in your hometown of Yazoo City. How did that proximity to his world inform your research for your biography about him?
I was born 20 years after Willie. His basketball coach Harold Kelly was superintendent of schools when I was at Yazoo High. His algebra teacher Harriet DeCell was my humanities teacher.
In many ways, the world of Yazoo City hadn’t changed much by the time I started high school. This contributed to my understanding of who Willie was, and I think it opened doors. I got the chance to interview his coaches and teachers and also his grade school and high school friends. I think this enriched the biography.
Can you share some highlights from the books you worked on in your publishing career?
My career in publishing had to do with the graphic arts more than with editorial acquisitions. I worked on four-color lifestyle and cookbooks.
One of the first books I did was Martha Stewart’s “Entertaining.” I’d arrived in New York at a critical moment, when publishers were making the transition to desktop publishing. Martha Stewart’s “Weddings” was the first book we produced that way, and it gave us tremendously more flexibility.
On the editorial side, I was instrumental in publishing Jill Conner Browne’s “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love.” JoAnne Morris edited the book for us. It became our best-selling paperback.
During your years in New York, did you usually share or withhold your Mississippi roots?
I was never ashamed of being from Mississippi. Just the opposite. I’ve always been proud of the state’s literary history. I even think being from Mississippi may have provided a certain cachet. And people don’t forget the name Yazoo. Many of the people I worked with already knew of the town, thanks to Willie and his golden years at Harper’s.
What advice would you give someone who is caregiving for a family member and might be facing the decision to put a loved one in assisted living?
It’s a hard decision, a balancing act between the caregiver’s and the family member’s needs. When my mother got sick with repeat pneumonias, we brought up nursing home care. Talking about it with her was important. We also spoke with my mother’s doctor. Ultimately, we didn’t have to make the choice for her because she decided.
When the day for her admittance came, though, she didn’t want to go. At first, we couldn’t understand her refusal. Then we realized: My sister was visiting, and my mother wanted to stay home with her for a few days. It’s important to listen.
Emily Liner is the owner and founder of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.
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