Funny Lady

ermaLast week, when my birthday rolled around I reflected once again how nice it has been to share the day with one of America’s great humorists. 

At the time of her death, every print and broadcast outlet in the country ran a tribute to Erma Bombeck, the homemaker from Dayton who one day sat down and began sending out dispatches from the front lines of motherhood. The dispatches grew into first a column syndicated to over 900 newspapers and then some 15 books, including the wickedly titled The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.

But as uniformly fond as these tributes were as I reread them online now, many of them read as slightly dismissive, framing her almost as a clever dabbler, a suburban mom who started writing columns as a lark.

As if any writer doing a thing ‘as a lark’ could produce the tightly crafted sketches she was known for. 

As if anyone tossing something off in the odd half hour could describe the child-rearing game the way she did.

She wrote in one column that she once lived in a place so small she had to iron in the baby’s playpen.

She wrote in another that if her kids had looked as good as the kids of her perfect neighbor, she would 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.”

And then there was the column where she imagined how each of her three kids might someday recall her: Her first-born would think of her as “the slim dark-haired mom who used to read me stories and paste my baby pictures in the album.” Her second-born would picture “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 baby of the family, she wrote, would remember her as “the grayish lady who fell asleep during the 6 o’clock news, and was GOING to display my baby pictures, as soon as she took the rest of the roll – at my wedding.”

She had just that light way of describing time’s effect. But funny as she was, she always told the truth.

She spoke of the feeling that comes to women raising kids in the then-newly fashionable ‘nuclear family’ where a man, a woman and their children went off and lived on their own, sometimes far from all kin.

Her commentary on this new arrangement: “No one talked about it, but everyone knew what it was. It was a condition, and it came with the territory.”

She called that condition ‘loneliness.’

I found out about this loneliness when I left my job teaching to care for my own small children. In their baby years, I would stuff them into coats and snowsuits and push, or walk, carry them – somewhere – anywhere I might find another woman in another house trying to do the hardest job on earth all by herself.

But when those babies napped? When they napped, I’d kick the toys under the couch and begin to read and read, looking for something I could not name – until one day in my daily paper I met the writer who would show me what I most wanted to do in life.

Erma wrote a column every week for 32 years. 

By now I’ve been writing one for 35 years – and with every passing birthday I think what a privilege it has been to follow in her footsteps, recording life as we really live it and celebrating its vicissitudes.

the calm before the boy child

this was us in 1980, before the final child come and broke the snoozy,two-little-girls peace


Jeez Louise

wile e coyote

I always thought if you skidded you went sideways, but I didn’t go sideways on that horrible day of icy roads and freezing rain that we had last month in northern New England.

On that day, with conditions so treacherous the state ran out of tow trucks, my car didn’t go the way I asked at all but jackrabbited instead , straight into a tree.

Never mind that I was turning the wheel.

Never mind that I had braked with extra care.

But if the car didn’t go sideways over the last two months, just about everything else around here did – even before we got to the seven feet of snow.

For one thing, everyone in my family got sick and some of us got Technicolor sick.

I was one of the lucky ones: My kind of sick just had me laid out like Lenin in his tomb for most of our family vacation, aware only dimly of various kind family members circling through to bring me food I could not eat.

Then, for the week following, I couldn’t sleep, because my air passages were so packed with what felt like concrete.

Then, for two weeks after that, I couldn’t wake up.

Also, for most of those weeks, I couldn’t read.

I couldn’t iron, though ironing has always helped me calm myself in the midst of every kind of personal shipwreck. I would LOOK at the iron propped on the windowsill and sink, ‘How do you suppose that thing works?’ I would LOOK at the TVs darkened screen and think, “Weren’t there some sort of beguiling images or something that used to emit from there?

And there is more: My little grandson broke his leg badly enough that he’ll be in walkin’ like Captain Ahab ‘til the tulips come up. 

My sister fell and broke her pelvis.

And I caught two toes on a piece of medical equipment at the doctor’s office – in the doctor’s very office! – painfully spraining them both.

Someplace in there, chiefly out of a sense of compassion for my salt-and-sand encrusted vehicle, I pulled into our local carwash, but did so such a way that the two guys manning the place began yelling and waving their soapy long-handled brushes around wildly.

Why? Why were they yelling? They were yelling because though I had glided nicely into place, settling my wheels just so in those two wheel-receiving troughs they have, I had then proceeded to throw the car smartly into Reverse and step on the accelerator.

Then, in the ensuing panic, I stepped on the brake and leaned on the set of four buttons that open all the windows.

So now every time I go to the car wash, the guys there take one look at my approaching vehicle and start yelling right away. “Neutral!” they go, waving their funny brushes. “Put it in Neutral!” They get so worked up every single time jeez Louise.

But me, I just look at it like this: At least I didn’t try going in sideways.

Some Grumble, Some Stay Sweet

People are losing it for sure. Today the traffic in and around Boston was so bad folks were calling in to WBZ Radio to yell about how in an entire hour they had gone only 75 yards.

Here’s a picture looking out at my back yard in early 2015. I look at it and marvel at the fact that I took it in the dead of winter, a couple of weeks into this lively new year.


It’s hard to believe we had such a green January – and a green December too, as you can see by my little seasonally dressed friend sitting at the window in our kitchen to peek out.


This is the view out that window today:


We WOULD have scraped the snow off this little roof that comes up only to the tops of our heads, but even my tallest house guests kept sinking past crotch-height in this super-deep snow, which is acting a lot more like quicksand.

So no wonder people are getting grouchy.

I’m getting grouchy myself and even yelled “Christ!” in anger in this very kitchen on Monday before of an audience of sweet and deluded young people who I think previously thought I was Mother Theresa.

But the really sweet person? The female letter carrier who left a note I saw about digging  out one’s mailbox.

And how do you know she’s so nice? You just have to give the notice a more-than-cursory glance: she drew  a little smiley face right near the bottom .


 God bless the even-tempered huh? Now please somebody come quick and help me with these swords!


the view from the window of my second story office.  

Snowday Epiphanies

baby bathIt takes a lot to slow us Americans down, no matter what the weather does. We stand at bus stops, profiles to the wind like those big-domed heads on Easter Island. We churn along snowy roads. We crane our necks in subway stations watching for the light on that first train car to lumber into view.  But if the governor says, “stay home,” we stay home. Anyway, the schools are closed and even the officious bureaucrats have to acknowledge that they too are ‘non-essential personnel’.

And so there we all are on these snowdays, walled up in our houses for the duration.

And it’s hard, at first, to stop spinning our wheels.  We go out and shovel, or try to anyway. We probe holes in the snow for the dryer vent. We probe holes for the car’s exhaust pipe, in the event that we’re ever be able to drive again, which prospect looks pretty doubtful with everything we own getting swaddled in filaments of white like flies by giant spiders. Then, trekking back indoors, we begin on the small household jobs we always forget we have waiting for us.

In the snowdays just past, I catalogued old photos, sliding them into albums I had bought for the purpose nearly a decade ago. 

  • I sorted through many perfectly fine articles of clothing I somehow never wear, and bagged them up to give to Goodwill.

  • I went through my mother’s old collection of recipes clipped from the newspapers of the 50s, 60s and 70s and smiled at the easy, guilt-free way people cooked before food preparation became a competitive sport. ( “For Hearty Fisherman’s Stew,” one recipe begins,  “take a can each of Campbell’s Cream of Celery Soup, Campbell’s Lobster Bisque and Campbell’s Clam Chowder adding to these three canfuls of cream…”)

  • I climbed to the attic and knelt by that old cabinet that holds all my mother’s diaries and read every single entry she made in the last three months of a life none of us knew was about to go to black as abruptly as that famous final episode of The Sopranos.

 But ‘Enough of this clerk work!’  I finally told myself. ‘Enough with this peering and the sorting!’

I drew a bath and sat in the hot soapy water for a full 40 minutes, considering things – and realized, as I studied my feet, that they look exactly as they looked when I sat in the tub at age three while my mother worked a busy washcloth between my toes.

That made me smile and I felt my own inner clockworks slow down at last. I stopped obsessing about how we would ever dig out; stopped fretting over how I would meet my obligations and get to the places I needed to get to in the days ahead.

Then, with the bath drained and me once again dressed, I went into the kitchen and began rummaging among the canned goods – to find there slumbering after all these years, the making of a ‘stew’ of my own, from those trusty soups in the red-and-white cans. 

I had Cream of Tomato, I had Cream of Mushroom and I had Cream of Chicken. It was 1960 again.  And it began to look to me as though  old William Faulkner hit the nail on the head when he said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”  What at though, eh? Now WHERE did I put mom’s old frilly apron again?



Bring Your Puppy to Work Day?

imagesI sit in my car outside Rudy’s Upholstery, waiting for the owner and watching his left-behind Dalmatian pup through the glass of the shop door. “Back at 2:00” reads a sign on the door – and here it is only 12:55.

The puppy sees me and cocks his head. “Come inside and play with me!” says his small eager face.

I met this upholsterer, whose name is Alan, back when, as a boy with a mop of auburn curls, he sat both in my English class and my homeroom during his Junior year at the high school I taught. 

The next year he graduated, and 20 years went by zip, which is how 20 years do. During that time, my husband and I had had several upholsterers in our lives, some pretty good, some not-so-good. One pricey guy practically wept on delivering a Victorian sofa he had put more time into than he pictured doing. “Straw inside it!” he kept exclaiming. “Not even horsehair, STRAW!”

Through the shop window I watch this baby dog investigating a book of sample fabrics, gnawing on its cardboard covers and gumming a nice swatch of burgundy brocade.

Then, maybe two years ago, I drove past Rudy’s and wondered if it was true what I had heard: that Alan now owned it, having taken over the business from his dad and granddad. I walked in saw that it was.

So now, when I have something that needs re-covering – chairs or window-seat cushions, or even those fancy pillows shaped liked Tootsie Rolls, I call him up.

He and his colleague Ray can re-upholster anything – and soon he may have to re-upholster his very shop, since his pup is now biting clear through the edges of some shelving. 

Once when I was here, and Alan stopped to take a call, I turned to Ray. “He was a dickens in high school, you know,” I said.

“He’s a dickens now,” said Ray, smiling.

 Alan and I always talk: about who has sickened, who has died, who has made it big. We talk about how he still plays baseball and how he has three kids under eight and is nuts about dogs.

When I came one morning last summer, we spoke about the rare illness that had taken his last dog, on that very morning. “I just got in, but I don’t think I can work,” he blurted, looking around distractedly.

 “Listen. Find a new dog.” I said, turning to go.

 “Oh, I don’t know…”

 “I know,” I said in that bossy teachery way. “Find a new dog and fall in love again.”

And so he has done, as I see here today.

Now the little guy has now discovered a pair of gym shorts and is tossing them gaily up in the air.

“Boy are you going to get it,” I start to tell the pup through the thick glass door.

But here comes Alan now, in through the back. He looks around at the devastation, shakes his head and, smiling, bends to pat his little dog.

And I think as I watch them, what could be nicer than this hour I have just now spent? What nicer than to cease rowing for a spell, and rest on your oars, and notice the ones who are sailing beside you?



static! It’s one thing or another these last days: it’s too moist or too dry. When it’s moist it’s moist because clouds are draped us like damp heavy sails pulled down onto the deck and every other hour snow falls. The snow soaks our clothes and puddles on our floors. We count on other members of our household to towel us off when we come back inside, looking like sleek and wet-headed pups, hair close against heads. But then the sun comes out and our furnaces are still working overtime because it’s so cold.  

I drew this pretty tassled cloth from the drier and saw it sort of ‘tentacle’ all around me. I pulled out the ironing board to try taming it that way and its fringes began reaching for the bureau. I picked it up again and leaped onto my sweater. Then I remembered that can of Static Guard I had bought back in the 90s which did the trick.

But it has had me pondering in the hours since that little cloth’s eerie antics:

What does Science all the the opposite of static? Dynamic, right?  So then what are we living through right now with all this weather and the snow piled high against our windows and fresh storms bustling in past the gate to muscle aside the storms that have come before them. Is this the static dead zone of deep true Winter? Or is there something dynamic that, beneath all the wailing gales and blinding snows, is breeding Spring, which is not SO many weeks down the road, no matter how things feel right now?

What was it that Hamlet said to his school pal after seeing his father’s ghost on the castle parapets? “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” How true is that?!