Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Birthday Biography: Forever Aunt Erma

"Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart."

When I was a junior in high school, our English class was given an assignment to read and report on a biography or memoir. The catch: when we presented our report to the class, we had to do it in character as the subject of our assignment.

For me, the assignment was a no-brainer. I went with author Erma Bombeck -- choosing a book I'd read a few years ago, in which she'd written about the ups and downs and true quirks of married life. It was the first Erma Bombeck book I'd ever read -- although, by eleventh grade, I'd already read quite a few of them.

Erma Bombeck was an American humorist who specialized in poking fun at the everyday life of the suburban homemaker. Her syndicated newspaper column first appeared in 1965 and ran for over thirty years (eventually appearing in over 4,000 papers). Over the course of her career, she published 15 books, most of which would go on to be best-sellers.

And here I was, a kid who had still been in elementary school when she'd first picked up an Erma Bombeck book and had promptly fallen in love. Some people seemed baffled that the misadventures of a mid-Western housewife would appeal to me, but to me they all missed the point: Erma Bombeck was funny. How could I not love her?

- "A friend never defends a husband who gets his wife an electric skillet for her birthday. A friend will tell you she saw your old boyfriend -- and he's a priest."

- "The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."

- "When a child is locked in the bathroom with water running and he says he's doing nothing but the dog is barking, call 911."

- "Sometimes I can't figure designers out. It's as if they flunked human anatomy."

Bombeck was born Erma Louise Fiste on February 21, 1927. She lived with her older sister Thelma and parents in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up, she loved taking tap-dance lessons and playing with Thelma -- but there was one thing she liked more than just about anything else: books.

Her interest in writing started early -- a natural extension, to Bombeck, of her love of reading. Her first assignment came at Emerson Junior High, writing a humor column for the student paper The Owl. She'd go on to write other columns for Patterson Vocational High School -- and got her first professional gig at age 16, interviewing Shirley Temple for the Dayton Herald. (Bombeck would go on to attend the University of Dayton.)

Her first full-time professional news assignments consisted of obituaries and, later, the women's section of the Dayton Journal-Herald. She'd start to hit her stride with her column "Operation Dustrag," which originally detailed housekeeping hints and tips but quickly became a humor column about the quirky life of the housewife.

Bombeck took some time off from the newspaper business with the adoption of her daughter, which was soon after followed by the birth of her two biological sons. Raising three children kept her more than busy, though she still found time to edit and write for the Dayton Shopping News.

And then, in 1964, Bombeck walked into the office of the editor of the local paper Kettering-Oakwood Times and told him she wanted to write a humor column for him. What began as a $3/column writing gig for the local paper would go on to become a multi-million-dollar career encompassing a syndicated column, books, television appearances, scriptwriting, and national tours on the speakers' circuit. And through it all, Bombeck kept her down-to-earth personality, wit, and sense of humor intact.

She didn't just write humor. Within the funny stories and the witty observations, there was a woman who fiercely loved her husband and children, and who understood that your family can both try your patience and support you through the ups and downs of life. Motherhood and writing were both callings of Bombeck's, and she used each one to guide her path through the other. You can read her love of family -- and of writing -- in every word she wrote.

I love Erma Bombeck because of her insight and wit, her love for her family, and her high good humor. Most of all, I love her because she's made me laugh, so many many times. And you don't even need to be a Midwestern housewife to relate to her.

At least, I don't think you do. My classmates did really enjoy listening to "Erma Bombeck" tell them all about her book. I made them laugh as soon as I announced the title: A Marriage Made in Heaven -- Or, Too Tired For an Affair.

I had a lot of fun with that assignment. How could I not?  Erma Bombeck was already a hero of mine. Getting to "be" her for a few minutes -- well, that was pretty cool.

- "My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint."

- "In two decades I've lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet."

- "Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go."

- "Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth."

For more on Erma Bombeck:

- The Life of Erma Bombeck

- The Erma Museum: Online Exhibits: includes photos and PDFs of Bombeck's letters and speeches

- When God Created Mothers: a short story by Erma Bombeck

- Erma Bombeck books @ the Library

- Erma Bombeck audiobooks @ the Library

-- Post by Ms. B


  1. I love her! I started reading her in elementary school also. My mom has all her books and I just picked them up and read them. (There was no such thing as an "off limits" book in our house growing up.) I cried so hard when she died and still sometimes can't believe she's gone. Thanks for reminding me of how funny she was.

    1. It's odd how many people I know who started reading her in elementary school or high school! I think it speaks to the awesomeness of her writing that her appeal is so universal -- you can be any age and still find her hilarious. :)

      Thanks so much for sharing your "Erma" memories!