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Schultz: For 2014: Talk less, listen more

Published: Friday, Jan. 3, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

On New Year’s Eve in 2012, 80-year-old Joan McFarland Klein gathered the women in her life for her annual luncheon to usher in what God only knew was in store for us over the next 12 months.

We Irish are always bracing ourselves.

Joan had raised four daughters and two sons and had 16 grandchildren by the time we became friends. We met through her daughter Sue. We hit it off right away.

I love a good yarn, and Joan was the consummate Irish storyteller, armed with perfect punch lines and impeccable timing. Mischief waltzed in with her, but she was reluctant to fill the room. You had to ask Joan Klein to share the tale on the tip of her tongue.

My mother had been gone for several years by the time I met Joan, and she was ever mindful of a daughter’s grief that lessens but never leaves.

“I cannot replace your mother,” Joan once told me, “but I can tell you when you’ve made this mother proud.” She never missed an opportunity to do so. Like any good mother, she exaggerated my contribution to the world.

Last’s year’s luncheon was the first time I had been invited to attend. Finally, I was an honorary member of the Klein clan. Fourteen of us sat around a row of tables pushed together.

We raised a racket and elicited stares from strangers, which made us laugh even more. Yes, I know how obnoxious we were. I also have known the envy that drives such glares. No contest which diner I’d rather be.

As always, Joan sat at the head of the table, smiling as she quietly took in all the commotion and laughter.

Also, as always, Joan instructed the server to bring the bill to her. When it arrived, I reached for my purse.

It was the only time Joan ever snapped at me.

“Put that down,” she said, pointing to my purse.

“But I just ...”

“Put. It. Down. I’m paying for this lunch. I always pay for this lunch.”

“But I ...”

She sliced the air with her hand.

“Quiet,” she said. “Not a word.”

She leaned in and with a smile whispered, “Talk less. Listen more.”

She meant it as a reprimand for the moment, but her words, punctuated with the sudden shift in her demeanor, packed quite the wallop. Obviously so because here I am writing about them a year later.

Or, more precisely, here I am writing about Joan only a month after she died.

What did God have in store for 2013? Question answered, and I can’t say I didn’t argue with him.

I miss Joan too much, but even this soon after her passing, I cannot think of her without smiling. That was her preference, and it is certainly her legacy.

“Talk less,” she said. “Listen more.”

I’ve got a long list of people who could benefit from such wise counsel.

Starting with me, I should add.

I work in the world of punditry, where even a moment’s silence, especially on TV, is perceived as weakness, particularly by fellow journalists. We could launch a fleet of hot air balloons with a single segment.

When I first started writing a column in 2002, my editor encouraged me to take the time to consider what hadn’t yet been said. It was good advice, for an opinion writer and for a fellow human being.

These days, social media have turned too many of us into self-promoters recycling one another’s first reactions. How that distinguishes us from preschoolers is a bit of a puzzle. Well, look: We’re taller, most of us. Older, too, if you’re just counting years. That’s something.

Looking back on my life and career so far, it’s easy to recall moments that make me wince. Never do they involve my saying too little. It occurred to me this week that if my regrets were illustrated as a comic strip, they’d produce an endless string of panels starring a woman with big hair and bony elbows plucking her speech bubbles from the air and trying to cram them back into her mouth.

I swear I can hear my friend Joan laughing at that.

If I talk less, I mean. If I listen more.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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