When Dear Abby died on January 16, I was suddenly 11 again, sitting in my best friend Judy's kitchen, snacking on Pop-Tarts and reading Dear Abby's column aloud. One day, Judy's father listened in and said, "I bet she makes up the questions."
"I bet she doesn't," I countered, surprising myself. Since when did I contradict grownups? Since when did I defend them?
Thing is, I trusted Dear Abby, heart and soul, questions and answers. I was a suburban kid, and Dear Abby was teaching me about the wider world, about sex and pettiness and alcoholism. She taught me that everyone has troubles. That no one is alone. That it's OK to ask for help. That even gut-wrenching questions have answers. That kindness counts, and so do thank-you notes.
Her common sense was anything but.
When I got married, my husband and I subscribed to a newspaper that carried her column, and I started reading her aloud in my own kitchen. One morning, I read Rob a letter from a man who dreamed of being a doctor. He was bemoaning how long it would take him to get through college and med school. "Abby, in seven years, I'll be 43 years old!"
"And how old will you be in seven years if you don't do it?" was her retort.
Wow. I'd been writing for Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Brides, and was burning to write a book. I thought: I'd better get on it! My dad knew of my ambition and had always said I had my "head screwed on straight." But my dad had just died, and I was down for the count. Besides, what could I possibly write about? All I'd done was survive adolescence.
My first book, Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You , came out in 1985. It was translated into many languages, including Russian -- my dad's first language. I began to receive letters about crushes, popularity, incest, eating disorders and death. And I began to answer them, occasionally envying Dear Abby because she had a staff. The British term for advice columnist is "agony aunt," but I felt more like a diligent big sister.
Soon, Rob and I had two daughters of our own, and one afternoon, I got a call from an editor who was starting a magazine, Girls' Life. Would I like to be the advice columnist?
"Yes!" I said, thrilled. Suddenly, I was "Dear Carol." This was in 1994.
I'd always admired how Dear Abby could hit the nail on the head with a bon mot or zinger, but my audience was pre- and post-pubescent, so for me, it was important to hammer gently. For nearly twenty years now, I've been tapping and typing. When people ask how many letters and emails I've answered, I reply, "A bazillion." Some friends think I'm crazy. Some days I'm inclined to agree.
When I get overwhelmed, however, I remind myself that I'm lucky: I can do good deeds in my pajamas. And strangers actually want me to opine and meddle; I get to offer not just my two cents, but my ten bucks.
Do I make up questions? No. No need. The letters are never-ending.
Unlike Dear Abby, I didn't get rich and famous. But I have been invited to talk with Oprah, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, Phil Donahue, Montel Williams and others. The chyron beneath my name often reads: "Dear Abby for Teens."
I was never Dear Abby, but I guess I played her on TV.
I wish I'd thanked Pauline Phillips for showing me a path that has been a privilege to follow. I'm glad others thanked her and that John Prine wrote his catchy song, "Dear Abby," in 1973.
Now here's some unsolicited advice: If someone helped you or showed you a path, write, email or drop by with pie. And if your parents (or grandparents) are alive, go nuts and pick up the phone.
Abby, belated thanks for teaching us to strive to be our best selves.
You really were a dear.