Local voices: Learning from Nono

August 9, 2010 2:54:00 PM



My mother and I spent our first night in Mississippi, in May 2008, at Shadowlawn, the antebellum home and bed and breakfast on College Street. The only Mississippians I knew were Shadowlawn''s owners, Burnette and Nono Avakian. 


When we asked about the couple, we learned they''d met at an antiques auction. He''d traveled the world in search of antiques and brought them stateside by the container. He was a worldly man with a Boston accent, she a detail-oriented Southern belle. She seemed to have tamed him, and together they ran Shadowlawn. 


From the start, the couple made us New Yorkers comfortable in a state we knew little about. Nono talked to me on the porch, man to man, as if I were an old friend, or even a long-lost son. I could tell he liked me and wanted to protect me in this new place. I appreciated his kinship, but I tried to come across as independent, buttoned down. I was, after all, about to work for The Dispatch, as an intern. 


A couple days later, I moved across the street, into a dorm at the Mississippi University for Women. Mother was still staying at Shadowlawn, so for the next few days, until she left, I went back each morning for breakfast. In the regal dining room, I loved watching Nono arch his wrist the way a crane''s neck does and pour perfectly balanced coffee into my porcelain teacup. It would have been awkward for any other person of his stature to do this. He was a tall tree or mountain of a man. I always worried he would knock over one antique or another perched on a nearby shelf. Such an act would have shocked everyone present and broken the quiet and peace in the room. But it never happened. He was always elegant, never preoccupied. 


After my mother returned to New York, I sometimes stopped by Shadowlawn to shoot the breeze with Nono. To me, in a word, he was world-weary. In my mind, he personified experienced individuals. For hours, to my delight, he could sit on the porch and tell stories -- about Burnette, or about Argentina or some other country where he''d found a precious thing. (He guessed he''d been to more than 100 countries and visited Argentina about 100 times.) 


When Nono was 16, he once told me, he put down $6,800 to buy a Dodge Charger. The dealer was asking $7,000 for it, but Nono came in with cash. He said to the dealer, "I''ve got $6,800 in cash in my pocket. 


You want it?" The dealer did. The story surprised me. I thought, People could do that? 


I returned to Columbus the next summer, to intern at The Dispatch for another three months. This time, I decided to stay in Shadowlawn''s backyard cottage. I negotiated a price with Nono, and that was that. 


On many nights, while relaxing on the porch, he saw me coming back from The Dispatch or some event I''d covered. He always greeted me, and I him. Once every couple weeks, when I had the energy, I joined him until it got dark. 


Before I met Nono, I knew little about antiques. He taught me its primary unit, the container. If I correctly documented what he said, containers are 40 feet long, nine feet tall and eight feet wide. 


They''re put on boats and shipped by sea, to Philadelphia or New Orleans or wherever. Good to know, I thought. 


As is the case with several people I met in Mississippi, I found it hard to tear myself from Nono and get on my way. I felt he wanted me around because he''d spent so long experiencing things but hadn''t taken enough time to talk about it all. 


He didn''t only teach me with words. Last summer I swore I''d driven over a bobcat on Highway 45. It was probably some other animal, but what do you expect from a city boy? Anyway, in the following days, I heard a strange sound coming from the front left tire of my car whenever I turned right. I asked Nono about the sound. Under the summer sun, he lay on his back and had a look at the tire in question, which I''d never bothered to do. He found the wheel-well liner had come loose from the engine splash shield, and the tire was scraping against it at every right turn. He retrieved a bunch of cable ties, affixed the liner back to the shield and told me I''d be fine. He was right. 


The sound could never fool me again. 


Last August, as I remember, Nono said he was planning more antique hunts, in China and Argentina. But around the same time he also said he was winding down. "No!" I told him. "No, Nono, you''re not winding down -- you''re fine!" 


About this too he was right. Nono died at Shadowlawn on July 19. He was 59. He no longer lives, but I can still hear him saying to me in his warm voice, "Hey, Jordan." 


How could I forget him? 


Jordan Novet was a Dispatch intern for two summers. In December he graduated from the University of Missouri -- where his favorite professor, Berkley Hudson, a Columbus native, teaches. Novet lives in Eugene, Ore.