Phyllis Diller: Her hilarious wisdom still rings true

Phyllis Diller stayed away from targeting other women or making heartless fun – instead, she was always self-deprecating.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Phyllis Diller knew how to take the sting out of parental imperfection.

There are things my mother taught me about being a parent and things I learned from Phyllis Diller. The latter had a bit more impact later in life. For example, I went to the Diller School of homemaking, agreeing with her saying, “Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.”

I was not cut from the Stepford cloth – more like the flowered Technicolor ensembles the comedian always favored – and so it is terribly sad to lose Ms. Diller and her colorful expressions today. She was the feather boa tossed on parenting’s apron-clad-Martha-Stewart-cookie-cutter-uniform style.

When I was a teen, daughter of a New York fashion designer, and Diller was in her heyday, I adored her bawdy laugh and horrible hair. There is something spectacularly memorable about women who can laugh out loud – not a text LOL, but the full-throated haw-haw of a free woman – that engaged my imagination.

Although it wasn’t until I became a parent and borderline housewife that I truly embraced the Dillerisms that had made me laugh all those years ago.

My children know only her as the voice of the Queen Ant in the Disney movie "A Bug’s Life." They didn’t realize she’d been with us all along, keeping me laughing out loud through the adversity of parenting.

“We spend the first twelve months of our children's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up,” she said, and it’s so true I found myself telling that to a young mom last week. I’d forgotten where it came from until today.

She knew how to take the sting out of parenting imperfection and those feelings we think we should never have about our kids with lines such as, “Most children threaten at times to run away from home. This is the only thing that keeps some parents going.”

Diller also cautioned, “Always be nice to your children because they are the ones who will choose your rest home.”

It was self-deprecating humor, a brand that often rubbed feminists the wrong way, but I found it to be the high road. Instead of attacking other women or poking heartless fun, her main target was in the mirror.

She always said her cooking was so terrible that her kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor. However, where Diller could really cook was on stage. Her witty one-liners did occasionally come with some genuinely good advice. “My recipe for dealing with anger and frustration: set the kitchen timer for twenty minutes, cry, rant, and rave, and at the sound of the bell, simmer down and go about business as usual.”

The best Dillerism is the one that is the most important and quite serious because it is the key factor in good parenting. When they skin their knees and you tell a joke to distract them, you live by this line. When the dog is purple and the child’s hair is cut in asymmetrical lines, this simple truth made it all better. It made it better because it’s impossible to holler when you’re grinning. As Diller said, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

Thanks, Ms. Diller, for keeping things straight for so long.

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