Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other. ~Erma Bombeck
When you contemplate beauty, I doubt Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) comes to mind.
But Erma possessed the attribute that makes every woman into a stunner—humor. Not the veiled cruelty that often passes for humor today, but the real thing, in all its poignancy and compassion.
She inspired laugh lines in a generation that never anticipated botox.
Erma would be 86 today. Of course, we’re all born dying, but Erma knew by age 20 what would kill her. That’s when she discovered she had polycystic kidney disease, a life-threatening illness inherited from her father. “It’s the only thing my father ever gave me,” she said with her trademark humor. Perhaps it made her see life differently.
Erma was both an young genius and a late bloomer. She grew up in Dayton and wrote her first humor column in junior high. By age 15, she knew she’d found her calling. According to her official biography, she marched into The Dayton Herald and demanded a job:
“I want to work for your paper.” The editor explained that only a full-time position was available.
“That’s okay, I can work two weeks and get you another girl to work the two weeks I’m in school. While she’s in school, I’ll work. That’s how our school operates. It’ll be just like having a full-time person.”
The Herald hired Erma as a “copygirl.” She got her big break interviewing Shirley Temple as one teenager to another. That earned her the staff award for feature of the week — $10 and a spot on the bulletin board. She thought she’d made her career.
At 17, Erma left home to study at Ohio University, 137 miles away. Despite her real-world experience, the college newspaper rejected all her submissions. She barely passed freshman composition and struggled with the whole university system.
Erma began to doubt her calling. “If I can’t write, what am I going to do with my life?” Not long after, she learned she had congenital kidney disease. It was a dark time for her.She came home and enrolled at the University of Dayton, a small Catholic college. During her sophomore year, Erma found a mentor in Brother Tom Price, who’d read some of her earlier pieces. He asked her to write for the university’s magazine, The Exponent.
One day, after reviewing her submission, he uttered three words that kept her going the rest of her life. “You can write,” he said. “You can write.”
Erma graduated from the University of Dayton in 1949 and married Bill Bombeck, a fellow student who also worked for the Dayton Journal. It had been “love at first sight,” but they waited until he returned from the Korean War. Not surprisingly, she also converted to Catholicism.
After graduation, Erma wrote a “woman’s column” for the newspaper. She and Bill tried to have children for six years and finally adopted Betsy in 1953. Erma quit working to stay home with her. Within six months, she became pregnant with her son Andrew. (Another son, Matthew was born three years later.)
According to The New York Times, she was nearing 40 when she knew it was her time to bloom:
That’s when I used to sit at the kitchen window, year after year, watching women like Ruth Gordon, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Golda Meir carving out their own careers. I decided that it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush. At 37, I decided it was my time to strike out.
In 1965, Glenn Thompson, editor of the Dayton Journal-Herald, hired her to write a humor column for $50 a week. He also got it syndicated. The column ran for over thirty years, appearing in over 4,000 papers.
Erma published fifteen books, most of which became bestsellers. The titles say it all—Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own! (1971), The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank (1976), and Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (1983) — to name just three. In 1988, she signed a contract with Harper & Row valued by publishing experts at $12 million.
At age 65, Erma learned she had breast cancer. She tackled it like a trooper, underwent a mastectomy, and won. Within a year, however, her kidneys started to fail. Erma died from complications of a kidney transplant at age 69.
Her family compiled her last book, Forever, Erma, after her death. The New York Times Book Review called it “a modest measure of our loss.”
In perhaps the greatest tribute, University of Dayton sponsors a writing workshop in her honor every other year, the only one in the country devoted to both humor and human interest writing.
Let the Wrinkles Roll
Shakespeare said, “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” When next you contemplate beauty, and visions of size zero dresses dance in your head, remember Erma Bombeck’s wisdom…
- “I am not a glutton—I am an explorer of food.”
- “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy.”
- “The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.”
- “What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?”
Do you have favorite Erma-ism?[Opening Image: Goutweed-grass, Pargolovo by Ivan Shiskin (1885) in honor of Erma’s book, The Grass is Always Green Over the Sceptic Tank.]