Back in 1996, when Erma Bombeck died of kidney disease, every print and broadcast outlet in the country ran a piece about her: the lady from Dayton who one day sat down and began sending dispatches, from the front lines of parenthood, that grew into a column and 11 books and a weekly slot on the tube.
Though uniformly fond, many of these tributes seem slightly dismissive, framing her as “housewife humorist” or clever dabbler. In a tribute in The Boston Globe, Diane White noted this too, speculating it was perhaps Erma’s choice of subject matter that led people to see her as a “suburban mother who started writing columns as a lark.”
But as White also reminded us, she was a 32-year veteran of deadline journalism.
Just like me, only I’m now closing in on 35 years on the job.
The morning of her death, my friend Cindy called from her desk at work. I see Cindy rarely since the long-ago days when she had me as her 12th grade teacher. The first thing she asked: Was I writing about Erma this week? “What gets me,” she said, “is how they make it sound like the column was just some easy thing she wedged into the odd-half hour.”
But no one spending a half hour could hope to put it the way Erma could always put it. She said she once lived in a place so small she had to iron in the playpen. She said if her kids had looked as good as the kids of her perfect neighbor, she’d have sold them. She spoke about the child who could “eat yellow snow, kiss the dog on the lips, chew gum that he found in the ash tray,” but wouldn’t drink from his brother’s glass.
I quoted some of this in a get-well column I wrote and sent her three years ago when 20/20 first revealed the extent of her illness.
In one of the pieces, she was imagining how each of her three kids might someday recall her, one as “the thin…dark-haired [mom] who used to read me stories, bake cookies, paste my baby pictures in the album “; one as “the somber-looking bleached blonde who used to put me to bed at 6:30 and bought me a dog to save on napkins”; and the last as “the grayish lady who fell asleep during the 6 o’clock news and was going to show my baby pictures – when she took the rest of the roll at my wedding.”
She had just that light way of remarking on things like Time and its effect on us all. She told the truth, beginning in an era when the “Women’s Pages” revolved chiefly around the woman’s role as consumer, cook, and student of etiquette.
She also dealt with the feeling that comes to women raising kids in America’s insular families: “No one talked about it a lot, but everyone knew what it was. It was a condition, and it came with the territory.” That condition was loneliness.
I learned about this loneliness when I left my job teaching to care for some babies. When the babies napped, I read the paper and met the writer who would one day change my life. When the babies woke, I put them in boots and snowsuits and pushed or walked or carried them, somewhere, anywhere I could find another woman in another house trying to do the hardest job on earth all by herself.
Today by conversation’s end, Cindy and I hadn’t figured out a time when we could catch up more by phone, much less get together. “How about I call you at home some night?” I asked, picturing her there relaxing with her husband and one-year-old. “Are you kidding?” she said. “ That’s the last place I have time to talk!”
Erma would totally get that. I hope she and Maya Angelou are having a great old laugh in Heaven right now.