Dear Abby, I miss you

Ten years ago in this space, I mourned the loss of Dear Abby. Abigail Van Buren had died at age 94. I felt like a wise old member of the family had passed on – similar to the way I felt the day Erma Bombeck passed … the day the laughter died.

Like everyone else, I met both those ladies in my morning newspaper. Unlike most people, I was privileged to meet them both …when they traveled as passengers on American Airlines.

I read Dear Abby daily, whether I lived in Boston, New York or San Diego. Sometimes, she was like a second mother, addressing some of the sticky subjects I didn’t dare talk about with my mother. Abby said no kisses on first dates and probably not the second. I wasn’t taking chances if Abby said no. Third dates were probably safe, but just one, “Don’t get carried away.” Who would talk to their mother about kissing, let alone getting carried away? I might have been dumb, but I wasn’t stupid.

Looking back on Abby’s advice, I realize her guidance actually did keep me from being stupid. She wrote the rules of boy/girl relationships and she had good advice about girls’ friendships, especially when teenage cattiness sometimes reared its ugly head. I learned from Abby that pettiness and jealousy were wasted emotions.

Abigail Van Buren, as most people know, was her pseudonym. Abby’s real name was Pauline Phillips. She chose the name Van Buren from the president because she thought it sounded distinguished and Abigail came from the bible – a woman who dispensed advice to kings.

Pauline Phillips, for all her celebrity and influence, didn’t flaunt her position. The day I met Abby, I was working a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. Flight crews were briefed in operations if we had a celebrity onboard, receiving paperwork detailing name, seat number and any special requirements. We were not told to expect Abigail Van Buren.

During boarding, a petite, elegant woman came through the door with a traveling companion. This young woman was dragging a large canvas duffle bag which we stored in the closet. The name tag pinned to seat 3A, by the window read “Mrs. Phillips.” We had no idea who Mrs. Phillips was, but she was impossible to ignore. Her elegant clothes and stunning jewelry spoke of her affluence, but her engaging smile and manner of speaking spoke of her self-confidence, despite a soft lisp. Short in stature, she was every inch a lady.

Although we served cocktails and an elaborate dinner, Mrs. Phillips didn’t drink, ate sparingly and asked sweetly if she might be able to use the first-class lounge as she had some paperwork to do. Wow, did she ever.

The companion turned out to be her secretary. She retrieved the duffle bag, they spread out, and went to work. The bag was full of hundreds of letters. It wasn’t until I saw one of the envelopes that I realized who she was. Looking over her little half glasses, she admitted she was Abby and she indulged me a few questions. Yes, she actually received many thousands of letters daily. She proudly told me that every letter was read, although the volume required a staff that edited them for her … she only read hundreds each day. Both ladies were sorting them into piles by category – lovelorn, in-laws, money problems, sex, illness, aging, family infighting, child raising, etc., etc.

As they busily made notes on the margins, I overheard Abby tell her assistant to put a call notation on one letter. Through the rest of the flight, I watched that pile grow. She commented that one particular letter should go to the top of the pile because she feared for his depression, his life. Mrs. Phillips may have started her career as a common-sense housewife, but she grew into a paragon of caring, doing the right thing.

She told me she called on experts around the country for professional advice. She was the real deal.

Abby worked through descent and landing, packing up when we arrived at the gate. She warmly took my hand at the door, genuinely thanked me, and headed up the jet bridge, the secretary and duffle bag in her wake.

After that, any time she appeared on television, I watched – she was also quick-witted and funny. As she aged, she grew more open-minded, more tolerant, but still retained her moral rudder, her common sense. Sometimes her answer was simply, “Grow up.” She didn’t tolerate fools gladly.

She wrote for over 30 years, until Alzheimer’s invaded her good mind. I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of lives that mind had coached through the years.

Thank you, Abby, good friend, for your humor, your humanity. And just as you lightened up as you aged, I want you to know that in my widowed sixties, I kissed on the second date. I knew you’d approve.

Marcy O’Brien can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.


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