Momentum: ASK AUNT PETUNIA
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Great-Aunt Petunia rocked back and forth on her porch and frowned.
"Her ashes weren't even scattered when the jackals started to circle," she said. "It's a crying shame, it is."
She was talking about the recent death of Ann Landers, of course.
Aunt Petunia has soft, dazzling white hair, downy pink cheeks, and a well-upholstered bosom. She is exceptionally fond of her calico cat, Burp, who she named because she thought God had done exactly that while holding His paint brush.
She is the sister of my grandmother, Flora, who named her own daughter, my mother, Rose - if you are starting to see a pattern here. I talk to her often, and I must say, that for all her cuddly old-lady cuteness, Aunt Petunia is one of the most acerbic commentators on current affairs I have ever met. It doesn't pay to get too comfortable when you're around her. Once, on her birthday, I asked her how it felt to turn 80 and she snapped, "It doesn't feel any different than being 79."
As an avid reader of both Ann Landers and her twin sister, Dear Abby, Aunt Petunia was taking the death of Eppie Lederer hard
"First she doesn't tell anyone that she's sick, not even her twin sister," Aunt Petunia grumbled. "Then she doesn't want a memorial service or a funeral. Then she wants her column to stop, even though she got it -- the column, I mean, and the Ann Landers name that went with it -- in 1955, when somebody else died. How can one of the most loved and respected and famous people in the world want to evaporate into thin air?"
"Yeah, what's that about?" I said.
"Ladies don't say 'yeah,' Joyce," Aunt Petunia said.
"Yes, then, but if someone had written about this in a letter to Ann Landers, wouldn't she have told them that people need to grieve and mourn, and that she was depriving her friends and family of emotional sustenance they might need in a time of tragedy?"
"Yes, she probably would have. And she would have been right, too."
"Maybe it has something to do with being a newspaper writer," I said. "You know, one day everybody is reading what you wrote, and the next day it's lining a bird cage. Poof!"
"That may be your problem, Joyce, but those two women published columns every single day of the year. They were hard to avoid."
"What jackals are you talking about, anyway?"
"It's a well-known fact that when Eppie started her Ann Landers column, she asked her twin sister, Pauline Phillips, to help. Then, when Pauline went off to start her Dear Abby column, Eppie gave it her blessing, 'as long as it doesn't go to syndication.' But of course it did, and the two sisters didn't talk to each other again for 10 years."
"I thought they'd made up."
"They did, finally. But now Eppie's daughter, Margo Howard, who writes an advice column on-line for Slate called Dear Prudence, is feuding with her cousin, Pauline's daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who has been writing Dear Abby for the past 15 years."
"Feuding over what?"
"Well, after Eppie's death, Jeanne went on the Larry King show and talked about how much she loved her wonderful aunt. Then she read a sentimental farewell column she had written for her. That's all well and good. Then her syndicate offered the column free to all Ann Landers' subscribers. Margo claimed that Jeanne's 'flogging her grief' of television was 'beneath contempt.' She said the truth was that Jeanne had 'had no relationship with my mother for decades.' In fact, she said, Jeanne was just trying to steal the business."
"Sounds like they need advice from Ann Landers or Dear Abby," I said.
"Very funny, Joyce," Aunt Petunia said. "As if you're the only columnist in the country who's thought of that. My guess is that the bone cancer made Eppie feel vulnerable, and that's why she didn't want anyone to know about it, or to memorialize her. And she felt protective of her column, which was her baby. Her daughter, in mourning and picking up on the vulnerability, got protective of her mother. So she took offense when maybe there was something to take offense about, and maybe not."
"That's very wise, Aunt Petunia. What do you like about Ann Landers and Dear Abby, anyway?" I asked.
"I like the way they make me feel superior, for one thing," Aunt Petunia said. She rummaged around in a pile of newspapers next to her rocker.
"Take this Dear Abby, where a woman is complaining that during an ear exam, her doctor slipped his hand into her bra. She has since found out that he does 'breast exams' on all his female patients. And the women 'feel fortunate to be checked so often.' Now I would punch out any doctor who tried that on me, and I don't know any woman who wouldn't. So I get to feel superior to those fools."
"What did Dear Abby say to that?"
"She said the letter-writer should get a second opinion -- from the state licensing committee! Good for her! I like it that these women are sharp and full of common sense. And when they get something wrong, they admit it. Politicians could learn a thing or two from Ann Landers and Dear Abby."
"I wouldn't mind being the next Ann Landers, Aunt Petunia," I said.
"I'll bet," she snorted. "Every writer and writer wannabe in the country is competing for that job. Each columnist has about 90 million readers world-wide. I read somewhere that each column represents about $12 million dollars a year, and syndication in about 1,000 newspapers."
"Then why don't you try out for the job, Aunt Petunia? You like to tell people what to do."
"They probably want someone young and hot and willing to talk a lot about sex," she said. "Someone like that wonderful Dan Savage guy."
"Dan Savage writes about the intricacies of homosexual dating, Aunt Petunia," I said. "Ann Landers writes about wedding etiquette. And how do you know about Dan Savage, anyway?"
"I may be old, but I'm not dead."
By the end of our conversation, Aunt Petunia had agreed to try her hand at writing an advice column. So if you have a question or a problem, send a letter to her c/o me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she'll tell you exactly what to do. She's good at that.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. Aunt Petunia is as fictional as Anne Landers and Dear Abby, but don't let that stop you from writing.