One of my heroes is Erma Bombeck, the American humorist who entertained millions of us every week with her syndicated column, “At Wit’s End.” How this ordinary stay-at-home mom became a national comedian is a fascinating story.
Erma (nee Fiste) Bombeck was born near Dayton, Ohio in 1927. Her father, a crane operator, died when she was only nine. As a little girl, Erma enjoyed singing and tap dancing. In school she was an excellent student and an avid reader. In junior high and high school, she wrote both serious and humorous columns for the student newspapers. After graduation she worked for a time for The Dayton Herald as a copygirl. Eventually she attended the University of Dayton, a Catholic college operated by the Marianist priests and brothers. Her English professor, Brother Tom Price, recognized her talent and encouraged her writing. In 1949, Erma graduated with a degree in English and became a life-long supporter of her alma mater.
In 1949 she also became a Catholic and married Bill Bombeck, a fellow student and a veteran of World War II and the Korean front. Bill became an educator while Erma worked in public relations and other writing jobs. When they were told they would never have children, the couple adopted a little girl, Betsy, in 1953. A few years later, though, Erma gave birth to two sons, Andrew and Matthew.
Erma decided to put her writing aside and became a full-time, stay-at-home Mom. But in 1964 she began writing again—about something she knew very well: family life in suburbia. She was paid $3 for each of her columns for the local newspaper. But soon, her column was picked up by more and more newspapers until, in 1978, it was syndicated in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada and read by over 30 million people. Erma became something of a national celebrity and started appearing on radio and TV. All the while she continued to chronicle life as a wife and mother. In the process, she made millions of us smile, laugh, and even cry.
Erma wrote, for example, “Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.” On choosing a spouse, she said: “People shop for a bathing suit with more care than they do for a husband or wife. The rules are the same. Look for something you’ll feel comfortable wearing. Allow for room to grow.” Of men, she wrote, “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”
She had much advice to offer about raising children. “Never have more children than you have car windows… Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.” She dispensed her wit and wisdom on other topics as well: “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy…Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died… Cats invented self-esteem.” On a more serious level, she wrote: “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere… Our children need our love the most when they deserve it the least… When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
In addition to her column, Erma wrote 15 books, most of them best sellers. The titles reflect her sense of humor: The Grass Is always Greener over the Septic Tank, Just Wait till You Have Children of Your Own, and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? One of the treasured books on my bookshelf is her book I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. That book might seem unusual for a nun to have, but one of my students, years ago, gave it to me. She had it personally inscribed to me by Erma. The inscription reads: “For Sister Melannie, I have made it through prayer and a sense of humor—in that order! Erma Bombeck.”
Erma was a breast cancer survivor. At age 20, she was diagnosed with a rare, genetic
kidney disease, a fact she kept private. For years, few people knew she had to have regular dialysis. Finally, in April 1996, she underwent a kidney transplant. Sadly, she died two weeks later from complications.
One of my favorite quotations of Erma’s is this one: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope I would not have a single talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” I think the world is a better and happier place because Erma Bombeck used all her talents in such a generous and loving way.
I chose a happy song for today. After all, we’re still in the Easter season. This is “Oh Happy Day” from Sister Act 2 starring Whoopi Goldberg. I hope it makes you smile and tap your feet!
What strikes you most about Erma Bombeck?
What did you think of the song?
Are there other humorists today that help us laugh at ourselves in a healthy and wholesome way?