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.