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