I have lost a trusted friend, and I don’t know where to turn. My friend was 94 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for at least a decade. But just knowing she was still alive was a comfort somehow.
For years she doled out advice to me—well, me and millions of other devoted readers in more than 1,000 newspapers around the world. She was always smart and often funny. And she never mistook deep feeling for truth: just because you felt something strongly didn’t make it a fact, my friend always implied.
People always said she had common sense, but I always thought it was more than that. In just a few pithy words, she could get right to the core of a problem and save everyone a lot of time and bother.
Like this exchange:
Dear A—-: Our son married a girl when he was in the service. They were married in February and she had an 8 1/2-pound baby girl in August. She said the baby was premature. Can an 8 1/2-pound baby be this premature?—Wanting to Know
Dear Wanting: The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.
That’s uncommon good sense, if you ask me.
She had a weird ability to set you straight and make you laugh at yourself at the same time. And how many of us over decades did she slowly but surely drag to more broadminded positions on marriage, premarital sex, homosexuality, hospice care—you name it? Little by little, in column after column, she made the world a more comfortable place for an awful lot of people.
And how many times did people write in just to see what she would say? She didn’t disappoint them.
Dear A—-: What’s the difference between a wife and a mistress?—Bess
Dear Bess: Night and Day.
My friend wrote under a pseudonym. Her married name was Pauline Phillips. She was born Pauline Esther Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1918. Her father ran a chain of movie theaters. And get this: she had an identical twin, and not only a twin but one in the same business she was in: advice columnist. Her twin—I’ll call her Ann—started in the business first, but Ann kept asking her sister for, ahem, advice on how to write the advice column. So after a while, my friend went into the business for herself. Needless to say, those women were very competitive. Once they didn’t speak to each other for almost five years. (See: Physician, heal thyself, etc.)
My friend’s daughter writes the column her mother started in 1956. It’s still smart, but I think it misses something, some mysterious zing that only my friend had. Of course, maybe it’s just that these days everyone is shouting advice at me all the time—Drs. Ruth, Laura, and Phil, Judge Judy, and on and on. I don’t need more advice!
It wasn’t like that in my friend’s heyday. Twenty years ago, you picked up your newspaper, checked the front page, scanned the funnies, and then turned down to my friend’s column to read about someone who was probably having a harder time of it than you were—someone who was Miffed at Mom, or Unexpectedly Expecting in Encino. There was just enough heartache and misery, all of it sorted out by my friend’s smart, tart answers, to get you through breakfast.
Did my friend and her sister open the door to people talking more directly about feelings, and family spats and all the other hair-pulling that now keeps daytime TV afloat? Sure they did. Or they helped a lot. The thing is, they did it better, and my friend did it best (her sister, Ann, could be a little … earnest).
Did I ever take my friend’s advice? Umm, maybe not directly (I wasn’t Knocked Up in Toledo). But the way my friend dispensed her advice, with a tone that said “don’t take yourself and your little problems so seriously” that made a big impact. She never made fun of people, never made them feel small—unless they really deserved it. Petty relatives and bigots got short shrift. The rest of us just learned not to sweat the small stuff and to be a little more broadminded and accepting about our neighbors and our in-laws.
OK, Abby, you’re a smart lady, so I know you’ve figured out that I’m not writing to you, I’m writing about you. And I don’t really need advice. I just wanted to pretend, for a little while, that you were still around.
So I’ll close now, because I know how busy you must be. Surely angels need good advice, too.
Bereft at The Daily Beast