Recently, our Writers Guild prompt consisted of a line from Erma Bombeck about house guests. I made one false start after another on the house guest theme and finally gave up. Eventually, I realized that what I really wanted to write about was Bombeck herself. So, this is what I ended up with–and I thought that some of you might be able to relate.
ERMA BOMBECK: CHOICE WORDS
When LBJ was signing the Civil Rights Act in Washington in 1964, Erma Bombeck was signing a contract with the Kettering-Oakwood Times to write two columns per week for a sum of $3 each. Five years later, in 1969, that column, “At Wit’s End,” was being nationally syndicated, appearing in over 900 newspapers across the country and lifting the spirits of suburban moms everywhere.
But in 1969, we suburban kids mostly didn’t get Bombeck’s “homespun” wit. At breakfast, Mom would turn to Erma’s column in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and chuckle over whatever the humorist was skewering that day—carpooling, one drive-through-something or another, meat loaf. Reading bits and pieces aloud, Mom would attach her current favorite to the refrigerator door, and we would provide obligatory smiles in response. For us, though, lost socks, dirty ovens, and teenage zombies drifting through the house opening cabinets and never closing them just weren’t particularly funny. Didn’t cabinets, after all, just close themselves?
I guess we didn’t really think all that much about how our parents spent their days. Our dads mostly “went to the office,” but what they did there, if we thought about it at all, was something of a mystery. Our moms mostly stayed home and took care of the house. (Apparently, in those days, even Erma’s kids didn’t really quite get it. When he was asked what his mother did, her young son Matt indicated with a clueless sort of grimace, that “she’s a syndicated communist.”)
In the 60s and 70s, it just didn’t seem to occur to most of us kids that our moms might have found their seemingly perfect, Leave-it-to-Beaver style suburbans lives to be boring or, worse, depressing. But Bombeck knew that life welll—and she was able to find humor in all of it. In The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, for example, she wrote about “Loneliness,” saying: “No one talked about it much, but everyone knew what it was. It was when you alphabetized the spices on your spice rack and talked to your plants, who fell asleep on you. It was a condition, and it came with the territory.”
It was territory that Erma, my mom, and my friends’ moms knew all too well. It consisted of their homes, their appliances, their husbands, children, neighbors, and friends…their lives. Motherhood in suburban America. Fertile ground for humor with an edge.
By 1978, Erma Bombeck’s unique ability to find humor in what so many of us thought of as simply trivial or mundane, if we thought about it at all, had taken her from earning $3 per column to garnering million-dollar book advances. Every single one of her fifteen books was an instant best-seller.
So, it came as something of a surprise to me when Bombeck said that the initial inspiration for her column had come from none other than the early feminist Betty Friedan. As the story goes, in the 50s, Bombeck heard Friedan give a speech about the dull and dreary chaos of the life that women like Erma and her friends were leading. Bombeck said that she kept waiting for the story to shift into humor and was horrified when it didn’t. What Friedan had detailed, Bombeck said, “just had to be funny. Without humor, after all, how could it be endured?”
In 1969, my friends and I were protesting an ugly war and watching television news reports of civil unrest in our cities. We were too busy to give a Dayton, Ohio housewife any more attention than the obligatory smiles we managed when our moms read us bits and pieces from her columns or attached them to our refrigerator doors.
But now, it’s time for us now Medicare card carrying kids to give her credit for the role she played in the women’s movement. She was a champion of women’s rights, working tirelessly for the passing of the ultimately doomed Equal Rights Amendment. But her greatest form of feminist activism was her humor. By providing women like my mom the opportunity to laugh at the details of suburban family life in the 60s and 70s—including the boredom, loneliness, and depression that came with it for many—she showed them that they were not alone. In so doing, she helped a generation of women discover that they had choices—and not just when it came to floor wax or what to pack for their kids’ lunches.
I think we owe Erma significantly more than an obligatory smile. And what might be the most fitting of tributes for her? A permanent spot on the refrigerator door.
Like the late Bombeck, Sue is an Ohio native–whose respect for good humor runs deep…