Pauline Phillips, better known as ‘Dear Abby,’ died Wednesday at the age of 94. In 1956, when she was in her late 30s and had been a mother and housewife for nearly 17 years, she embarked on a career — something she never really imagined she’d ever have. She approached an editor at The San Francisco Chronicle, “identifying herself as a local housewife who thought she could do better than the advice columnist the paper already had.” The editor gave her some sample letters to answer, he liked her replies, and the rest is history.
When I was a kid, maybe starting around the age of 9 or 10 or so, I used to read Dear Abby’s column every day in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I’d read her column, the horoscope, and the comics (“For Better or Worse” was always my favorite). I liked Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry in Sunday’s paper, too. As I got older, I’d skim the rest of the paper, but I never missed a Dear Abby column. I especially loved days before major holidays when the paper would run two Dear Abby columns.
As a kid, I probably couldn’t have articulated what it was exactly that I liked about Abby — or why I preferred her column to her twin sister’s, Ann Landers. As an adult — especially one who has been writing an advice column for several years — I can say now that I loved that she dared to have a strong opinion, and that that opinion was always grounded in compassion and empathy, and often delivered with sharp wit.
Years ago — 14 years ago now, almost to the day — I was nursing an awful broken heart. My first serious boyfriend had just dumped me, it was the middle of winter, I was eight months out of college and still unemployed, and I just felt like my life was always going to suck and I was destined to a life of misery and loneliness. My sweet grandfather, a poet, sent me a letter in the mail and inside the envelope he included a Dear Abby column that he’d clipped from the newspaper. In the column was a poem — it wasn’t a poem Abby had written, but it was one she liked a lot. This was it. I read that poem a lot in the coming months, touched both by the words and by my sweet grandfather taking the time to send it to his heartbroken, messed up granddaughter.
Thanks, Abby, for the memories, the wisdom, and the inspiration.