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In Which I seek advice...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dear Abby has died, several years after the demise of her twin sister, Ann Landers.

When I was about 7 I discovered them and they became seriously important symbols in my life. They stood for the ability to get outside and beyond my own small life and small home and get ADVICE from a sage. I knew that I needed advice and I knew that I needed it badly.

By this time I had already discounted my parents as non-trustworthy. The teachers I knew were either unapproachable. There were no neighbors or friendly older relatives I could count on. I used to read Ann Landers and Dear Abby dutifully—no, really eagerly. That was a time in which even smallish cities had both a morning and an afternoon newspaper and my family always subscribed to both. Their names were magical to me!

ADVICE! It became a word that was beautiful to my ears. I know that I needed advice and with advice my life would be improved. I was voyeuristic about the lives of others and ever hopeful that I could find some sort of model or paradigm that I could apply to my own life. I watched “Queen for a Day” with the same fanatic curiosity and thirst for knowledge that I read the advice columns of those smart twins from Sioux City. Advice was what I craved in the same way that people craved psychoanalysis or spiritual awakening or ice cream. I knew that with advice my small and mostly miserable little life would redeem itself and I would know how to conduct myself and, most of all, how to disencumber myself of the obstacles to happiness. Advice would be transformative!

I planned my quest for advice slowly. First, I had to learn how to send a letter and buy a stamp. Then I had to practice clarity in my cursive. I also knew that I had to wait for a really big issue. I had to wait until life became so intolerable that I could purloin a stamp and an envelope and write. Furthermore, it took me several months to ascertain what a self-addressed stamped envelope was and how to create on. As it happened, I chose to write to Ann Landers because she seemed ever so slightly more sympathetic than Abby and perhaps would take my case more seriously.
I wrote the following letter, more or less, one day in 1959:

“Dear Ann Landers,
Whenever I go to school my little sisters go into my room and mess things up and they even write in my books. How can I keep them out?”

Several weeks later my letter was returned and an adult hand had written at the bottom:

“Get a key!”

I was crestfallen. I knew that keys were forbidden in my house. My parents had an irrational compulsion to fix every door so that they could never be locked. We could not lock the bathroom door. We could not lock any door! And the car doors, in the back seats, had had their locks firmly taped down so that nobody could get in or out without an indecorous entrance via the front and then a tumble into the back.

The advice failed me. I did not have the courage to write back to Ann Landers and tell her that I was not allowed to have a key. I decided not to write to Dear Abby. I needed more subtle and sophisticated advice; I needed advice that understood the wily almost Jesuitical ways of my parents.

Keys! Why was my father so obsessed with having all doors open aside from the ones that he had chosen to permanently lock? I remember two things and only today, very belatedly, I wonder if they impinged on his decision: I was about 2 years old and I locked my mother out of the house. I don’t precisely remember doing it but the story was told so many times! I stared stonily and ruthlessly out the window onto the porch at her as she pled to be admitted. I walked upstairs and carried my new-born sister down the stairs by her feet and I took my one-year old brother into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator and proceeded to take out the food and to start feeding them (eating disorder anyone?). My mother smashed in the window and turned the lock before I could cram a beefsteak down the baby’s gullet.

Then another scene crosses my eyes. It was only a few years later. My brother got into the car and must have released the clutch because it slowly, gathering speed, went down the incline of the driveway and into the street. We all hooted and hollered with pride but my father had a FIT! True, it was a somewhat busy street. And true there were cars coming. But still---my little brother managed to drive the car! And thus useable keys were vanished and child-proofing was meticulously maintained.

So this is the story of why I wrote away for advice. I never knew that I was tilting at windmills all along. I never had a single key until I had a dorm key during my first year of college.
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  • LISAMG1220
    I loved this blog and I am an advice column junky also. I am always curious what the responses are. Some are so off but then some hit the mark and them sometimes I can relate and get wonderful advice myself.
    3065 days ago
  • OJ_2_OK
    I think the lesson of this story here is to be specific in what you ask for. I think this applies to all different kinds of relationships. If the other person doesn't hear all the qualifiers (such as the fact that your household didn't allow keys) they can not give you the proper help that you desire.
    3065 days ago
  • no profile photo CD13425678
    You recognized there was a problem and you were actively seeking solutions by the age of 7. And you recognized the problem was in the situation, not in you. And - you made a plan - a complex and long term plan - to get what you needed, and followed through with the plan. At 7?!? Wow. That's all I can think of to say.

    It's possible the story of you locking your mom out grew through the years. A "stony and ruthless" 2 year old seems unlikely to have grown up to be you.

    From your other posts my sense is that your adult life has been happier than your childhood was; I hope that's so, and if it is, it shows you persisted in your determination to "overcome the obstacles to happiness". I'm sure glad you shared this story...
    3066 days ago
    Interesting story. You are a writer.
    3066 days ago
    Great blog and tribute to a duo I also found delightful. It is unfortunate that Ann's terrific advice did not work in your case. Her brief, yet concise comeback right on. We all have obstacles to overcome and with the aid of people who call us their friend (or beautiful creator who made with a unique plan and purpose), it is my pray that we come through stronger, without too many regrets. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face! Hug, hug -- Evelyn
    3066 days ago
    Man, I would have gone banana-town if I didn't have a key to my room. My mom at one point removed the door from my room because I was being too private-- so I began keeping my diary in my locker at school.... Privacy was a1 (and still is, actually) for me....

    weird that the advice was so abrupt-- i usually expect more... coddling is the wrong word... just a "softer hammer" for advice to little ones.....

    RIP Abby!
    3066 days ago
  • no profile photo CD12937866
    I very much enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing.
    3066 days ago
  • LE7_1234
    I agree with POPSY190--food for a novel!

    We had a terrible time picking names for our twins, and finally settled on Abby and Anna in English. When we realized the connection, we decided maybe they'd grow up to be advice columnists and support us in our old age. (Hopefully without the years of estrangement that Abby and Ann--a.k.a. Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline--went through.)
    3067 days ago
  • POPSY190
    There's food for a novel in there! Thank you. I very much enjoyed the reflective tone of this.
    3067 days ago
    I love slices of other people's lives - thanx for sharing that, Natalie.

    ...and if you ever write a book, I'd like to be on the advance-notice list.
    3067 days ago
  • no profile photo CD7276122
    neat story...amazing the effect that lil ones can have innocently enough, but oh the panic your parents must have felt..of course mine never did,,snicker snicker...

    The advice columns will never be the same..those ladies were of a rare cut indeed.
    3067 days ago
  • SCOOTER4263
    You think those events might have had something to do with the lack of keys in your house? emoticon

    I remember my father remarking that the only time I ever locked a door was when he was on the other side of it. I don't *think* I did it intentionally, but ..then.. he'd always follow me through the house and turn out the lights I'd just flipped on, so that when I turned around to go back to my room, the whole way would be dark. emoticon

    I always read the advice columns, too, and one thing that has stuck with me for probably forty years was the story of the woman who wanted to go back to school and become a doctor, but it would take eight years and by then she'd be fifty. I forget which sister pointed out that in eight years, she'd be fifty anyway, so she may as well be a doctor, too. I couldn't have been much more than twelve when I read that, but for some reason I've always remembered that piece of advice.
    3067 days ago

    Comment edited on: 1/18/2013 11:53:16 PM
    Great blog!
    3067 days ago
    I loved advice columns - but never actually plucked up the courage to write to one! To do it and then get such dismissive advice....
    laughed about the keys. Keys were barred in our house after my younger sister locked herself in to the bathroom and could not work out how to unlock it. She wailed and wailed until my father eventually broke the window and climbed in to unlock it. Think the cost of the window replacement was the clincher. I was also once locked in the boot of his car as part of a game we were playing with my sister (after sneaking the keys while he was napping). The boot jammed and could be opened by us and of course I panicked (still can't bear small spaces) ...and he had to be woken up and was furious ...He did eventually get the boot open but had to pay for someone to come in and fix the lock (we were playing with the thing inside the car that opened the boot and somehow must have jammed/broken something).
    3067 days ago
    Aren't families interesting?? Loved your blog, very well written.
    3067 days ago
  • -LINDA_S
    What an interesting story! You write so very well!
    3067 days ago
    You and your siblings certainly kept things exciting at your house. LOL. I'm not sure I would still let you have a key. LOL. emoticon
    3067 days ago
    Well, I hope she meant well, but the advice surely wasn't helpful for you. What an interesting story about your parents and their aversion to locks. I'm sure a psychoanalyst would have a field day sussing out the reasons behind it.
    3067 days ago
    Very interesting story for sure. Pat in Maine, I love to blog keep them coming Pat in Maine. emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3067 days ago
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