Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Humor columnist Erma Bombeck was a household name in an era of serious news. If you were a housewife in the 1970’s and 80’s, she was also your best friend and mentor. She inspired mothers like me to believe that my wacky, out-of-control life with three kids under the age of four was—normal. She laughed and we laughed with her.
Erma Louise Bombeck did not have an easy life. Born in 1927, she was an English major at Ohio University and worked part time as a reporter for the Dayton Journal Herald. About that time, she was diagnosed with a kidney disease that would ultimately take her life. But not until she married, raised three children and became one of America’s beloved columnists. She was a homemaker’s sanity.
As a young mother in the late 1960s through the 1980s, I religiously read Erma’s column “At Wit’s End,” in our local newspaper. She started by writing a neighborhood newspaper ($3 a week) until the Journal Herald, invited her to write a three times a week column that became syndicated nationally and morphed into books with titles like "Motherhood, the Second Oldest Profession."
So, what was so special about Erma to young women such as myself? I guess you had to be there—in that place and time—to understand. Ours was an Ozzie and Harriet era. Families were portrayed as perfect. Dad left home every morning and went to work. Mom wore a perfect housedress, covered by a clean apron and ran a perfect household with no dust, dirt, or hair out of place.
On television all problems were solved in 30 minutes by perfect parents. And if the parents were perfect so were the children. Nothing so bad ever happened that it couldn’t be fixed or corrected by a smile, a pat on the head or a talk with dad. At the end of the day, all was well. Every day. All day. But at my house things were different. Life was hectic. Good but not perfect. I was not perfect.
Many of us less-than-perfect mothers felt we could never measure up to the uptight, humorless expectations of society. Our kids went to bed screaming and kicking. During the day they argued and pushed and shoved one another. At dinner if one didn’t want to eat peas no one would eat peas. And homework? Usually there was outright rebellion. Perfect we were not.
Along came Erma. After years of reading Dr. Spock, she was a breath of fresh air. As Phil Donohue said at her funeral, “Erma was irreverent in many ways. Motherhood was sacred i.e. ‘how blessed you are to have children.’ Erma came along and said, “Oy, I want to sell my kids!” We mothers understood.
In her writings, Erma put the TV lives of Donna, Harriet, Barbara, Shirley, Marjorie, Jane and Florence into perspective. She said, “Among them they had 22 children, 6 husbands and three maids. For two decades they were motherly role models …they never lost their temper, gained weight, scrubbed a toilet, were invaded by roaches or shouted. It was the age of God, Motherhood, Flag and Apple Pie. All you had to do to be a mother was to put on an apron.”
We nodded our heads. The TV life style was not real. It was abnormal. We were normal. She taught us to laugh at our foibles and appreciate our imperfection. Her columns even helped teach our kids and I sent many of them to our boys in college. This clipping in my Erma folder helped me explain the word ‘NO’ to my young teens:
The column title is “No, is a many splendored thing.” As she concludes the piece she says, “Parents live in hope that kids will thank them for saying ‘No’ as often as they did…I actually sat down once with one of my kids and tried to explain the meaning of No.
“It means I love you enough to want you to have as smooth a journey through life as is possible…When I see you going in the wrong direction, I have to say “No” to get you back on track. I don’t want you to be hurt of hurt someone else. A lot of No’s can make this possible. I want your trust that I will say ‘Yes’ as often as I can but say No when I must.
“My son sat there for a long time without speaking. Then he said, ‘So, why don’t you ever want me to have a good time?’”
I read that last line and laughed until I cried. She was talking about me! I had a kid like that and it was a replay of so many conversations at our house. By telling us that we knew we weren't alone. She also reminded us that it’s easy to become shortsighted about what is important and what isn’t.
In one column she wrote that she was upset because her grass wasn’t growing. The kids were playing on it and it was dying. She'd plant more grass seed and it would grow until the kids would play on it until it was brown. Pretty soon the kids went away to school. Then they got married. The place where the kids had played was green and the grass full and vigorous. She missed that bare spot.
Because of Erma, I learned to revel in youthful energy and growing pains; to enjoy all the ages and stages and seasons of young life. Those years leave lasting, precious memories that can’t be bought.
Erma was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 and survived. She died after a failed kidney transplant on April 22, 1996. The light of her laughter dimmed but not her spirit. So every year at this time I celebrate her life and inspiration and pass on her wisdom to those who missed knowing a great lady. She was a national treasure.
Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.