December 11, 2019

Talk to Me

I owe my life’s work to Ann Landers. And, of course, her sister, Dear Abby. Dr. Rose Franzblau. And Dr. Joyce Brothers.

It happened this way.

In our New York home, my parents subscribed to three daily newspapers. Mom and Dad are enthralled by the tabloids. Even today, they read newspapers in the kitchen or the living room. Each page is like a hit in the ribs. They regale themselves with stories of which politician is on the take, which star is on the make and murders gone unsolved. They got a big kick out of Frank Sinatra and remembered every Jewish charity he supported, and how he cared for his mother.

It’s part of the shtetl mentality that I inherited, that the world is fascinating because people make it so.

I was already following the family tradition of reading and gossiping when I hit what I’m sure my parents still consider "the miserable years." You would think I was the only teen who wanted her own phone or who had a boyfriend taking up her time.

And so the ice age began, when I didn’t talk to them, or they to me. Our dinnertime was frost.

"How was school?" Mom would say. Dad wouldn’t bother asking.

"Why do you need to know?" I would reply. It deteriorated from there, until I’d finished my cherry Jell-O and my brother and I had cleared the table.

An hour later, I’d be in my room studying the American immigrant experience. When I looked up, there on my blue jewelry box was the newspaper clipping of the day, placed there by whichever brave parent had the nerve to come into my sanctum.

Wisdom had arrived. One of the advice columnists had written precisely the words that brought my father and mother comfort, confidence that this phase was not life or death. It would pass.

"Talk to each other," was the gist of it. "Make peace in the home."

Later on, just before the 11 p.m. news, my father would say, "Did you read it?"

And I would grunt, yes. It wasn’t quite a truce, but it was the best we could manage until the next day’s installment.

As the obits this week remind us, Ann Landers, born Esther Pauline Friedman, and her twin sister, Pauline Esther Friedman (Dear Abby) had a running competition in the newspapers my parents read each day. They were Russian Jewish girls from Sioux City, Iowa, where their father sold chickens.

These columnists, in a sense, are the next step after the Bintel brief, a popular feature of the Jewish Daily Forward. The Bintel brief was written (by men) to explain America to a generation of confused immigrants. The advice columnists, writing in English, were naturals in the area that so many children of immigrants shine: common sense. The New York Times said that Ann Landers’ appeal was that she wrote in what has been called a wise-cracking style out of Damon Runyon. These advice columnists took America seriously, but not too seriously. Which is why they appealed across the generations.

Do we still need such bridge-builders? In the Southern California Living section of Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Hax, the Washington Post advice columnist, suggested the answer is "no."

"It’s not that hard for anyone to get expert advice now," she said. "You can get legal advice in a minute on the Internet."

But expertise was never the appeal of these features, though it was nice that Ann Landers buttressed her liberal opinions with religious and legal authorities like Father Theodore Hesburg and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The appeal to my dad was the voice of comfort, as the human dilemma confounded itself again and again.

It’s no small thing to give an audience comfort. A great columnist puts the world in order, finding wisdom merely by an anecdote and a bit of dialogue. I grew up in an age of great columnists, privileged to read on any weekday in the New York Post: Max Lerner, Murray Kempton, James Wechsler, then Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Nora Ephron.

They wrote about which politician is on the take and which star is on the make, and murders gone unsolved. Every now and then they write about their mother’s birthday, a good piece of theater, the death of a friend. It seemed a good way to live.

But it began with the advice columnists. Bless you ladies. Anyone who could get my family to thaw is precious to me.