Twenty years ago today Erma Bombeck died at 69 of complications from a kidney transplant. Bombeck, a native of Dayton, Ohio, rose to fame as a newspaper columnist, author, and ultimately, regular guest on “Good Morning, America.” At her peak, she wrote three columns a week for 900 newspapers. She never won a Pulitzer prize and didn’t make it off the then-Women’s Pages.
Her legacy endures today among a new generation of women, and some men, writers, mothers, fathers, and humorists.
The University of Dayton holds Bombeck’s papers and established the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop. I was fortunate to attend the biennial workshop in March 2016. It was much more than a writer’s workshop. The three-day event was a tribute to Bombeck and her family, as well as a “hands-on” workshop with A-list speakers, writers, and humorists, including Roy Blount, Jr., Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, Leighann Lord, Alan Zweibel, Amy Ephron and Gina Barreca.
Every day when participants entered the conference center, we were greeted with one of Erma’s old IBM Selectric typewriters. For writers who “composed at the typewriter” on machines like this one and their non-electric predecessors, seeing Erma’s typewriter was magical.
Why does Erma Bombeck matter today?
My mother read Erma’s “At Wit’s End” newspaper column and all of her books. Like millions of other women, Mom clipped out her favorites and stuck them on the refrigerator. She frequently chased me around the house to read a portion of Erma’s column. Mom, who had a silly streak and an excellent sense of humor, often quoted Erma.
Erma’s writing is ordinary, yet extraordinary. It takes tremendous skill to garner laughter and tears from the same anecdote. Her work is timeless and accessible. In a strange way, my discovery of Erma in my fifties is a link to my late mother, as well as further understanding of her life. All three Bombeck children, Betsy, Andrew, and Matt, also Boomers, attended the conference. and I imagine it was beautiful and terrible for them at the same time. Workshop attendees loved their mother, and none of them knew her personally. But, we all knew her, her home, her longings, her view of the world. She spoke for the generation of our mothers.
When I was an adolescent and starting writing, the last person I wanted to emulate was Erma Bombeck. She’s a housewife, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t then have much appreciation for the love and sacrifice my mother — also, college educated like Erma — had for my brother and me. No, I wanted to be Joan Didion or Judith Viorst or Gloria Steinem.
My first job involved all writing, the second job less writing, and more administration, and soon I was in management with little creativity. I managed an advertising agency account, but my “hands-on” days were over. I still yearned to write. Multiple life transitions gave me that opportunity in 2009. I started writing again and haven’t stopped since. Interestingly, my life was less like Gloria Steinem’s and more like Erma Bombeck’s.
As is the case for many female Baby Boomer humor writers, people tell me sometimes I remind them of Erma Bombeck. I’ll never be Erma Bombeck, but I’m okay to stand in a sliver of her reflected glory. I’ve been privileged to have several of my pieces published on the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop site (click here). I also had the honor to interview on of the Bombeck (adult) children for a Senior Wire News Service piece.
Erma Bombeck quotes from “Brainy Quotes.”
The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.
When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.
My kids always perceived the bathroom as a place where you wait it out until all the groceries are unloaded from the car.
Rest in Peace, dear Erma.