The Gift of a Good Read

While I was growing up, there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning.  It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter the title,  I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.

Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren.  I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.

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Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography.  Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays.  Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.

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I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City.  I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all.  Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.

Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch.  The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography.  An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.

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Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them.  He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…

His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer.  We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.

Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her.  It is great.  He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.

Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny.  It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did.  It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today.  This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.

Erma Made Me Laugh

I was talking with someone the other day who didn’t remember Erma Bombeck.  Of course, he/she was younger than me.  Why does there seem to be more of those all the time?

I owe Erma for making me laugh — when it was easy and when I didn’t think I could.  She never wrote anything rude or lewd to do it.  I think the closest she got to that was when she referred to her expertise in cooking.  “I thought a pinch of Rosemary was something my husband did once at a cocktail party.”  Her columns and books came straight from life, which she was very perceptive about — and often happened to describe things we had in common with her.

She could pick out absurdities so apparent that they were lost: “I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.”

She grimaced about sports widowhood: “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

She had fun with some issues of the day: “I believe in buying natural products to save the environment, but don’t you think giving up blue plaid toilet paper is going a bit too far?”

But she was vehemently supportive of the Equal Rights Amendment.  No one was sorrier when Congress failed to pass it.  She worked endlessly when appointed to the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women.

Erma was often pragmatic: “No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed.”

She could justify almost anything: “I am not a glutton.  I am an explorer of food.”

Once, when my children were young, I was asked to do a reading for a Mother’s Day banquet.  I chose a story where Erma was worrying about her son coming home on his first day of school.  What if the bus windows were steamed up, and he couldn’t see outside and missed the stop?  I laughed so hard I couldn’t finish it.  The audience was laughing partly at Erma and partly at me because I was so tickled.

Her book titles were as good as the one-liners inside the covers.  The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank; If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I in the Pits? and I Lost Everything in the Post-Partum Depression dished up more laughs, but she could be serious, too.  I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise was an empathetic look at children with cancer, whom she worked with.

For eleven years she livened the screen of Good Morning America with short segments.  But a couple of sitcoms based on her work did not work themselves and were cancelled.  I think it was because on paper, people could see themselves in those situations.  When actors were involved, it wasn’t the same.  A TV movie was also made based on one of her books.  She once said, “Success is outliving your failures.”

Erma had grown up near Dayton, Ohio, where her efforts as a writing mom gradually grew into a syndicated newspaper column, At Wit’s End.  Her feature Up the Wall appeared every month in Good Housekeeping magazine for women “who at long last had found someone who understood them.”

It was our country’s great loss when she passed away at age 69, in 1996 after a kidney transplant.  For me, the timing was poignant: it was a month before our older daughter graduated from high school.  I guess God thought I could take it from there.  I often go back to my first memories of reading her take on home, family, and life in general.

The University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater, has a writers’ workshop in her name each year, and maintains a website, http://www.ermamuseum.org, well worth visiting.

“When humor goes, there goes civilization,” she said.  I’m thankful Erma Louise Fiste Bombeck took her turn spinning the plate at the top of the pole.