An Ode to Erma Bombeck

An Ode to Erma Bombeck

posted in: Writers | 63

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.

Young Genius

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.An Ode to Erma Bombeck at LaterBloomer.comShe 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.)

Late Bloomer

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.]

63 Responses

  1. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Erma Bombeck was an awesome lady! And funny thing – she’s on my list of topics to blog about too. 🙂 I remember our fifth-grade teacher reading The Grass is Always Greener to my class right after it came out.

    • Debra Eve
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      I remember that being around when I was a kid too. I’ve always loved the title 🙂 Can’t wait to hear your piece about Erma.

  2. Patricia
    | Reply

    “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy.”

    Now that – is an awesome quote! I love, love, love it.

    Thanks for sharing this lovely tribute to Erma Bombeck. I did not know some of this stuff about her.

    And thanks for sharing in the blogfest. It’s so nice to see such lovely women spreading the love and joy of being a beautiful woman.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve
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      That’s one of my favorites, too, Patricia! This is a phenomenal blogfest that August has organized. I’m looking forward to visiting more of the others.

  3. Kim Jorgensen Gane
    | Reply

    “Life is Like a Bowl of Cherries,” I believe was another treat from Erma Bombeck, that I think my grandmother might have given me. I didn’t realize how much I had in common with her, however. I’ve turned my back on scrubbing the fridge in favor of writing, too, at an even later age than Erma decided it would be her calling. I will be grateful for a smidgen of the success she found, despite her ailments. What a lady she was! Thanks for the nice memories.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks for stopping by, Kim. And good for you Here’s another Erma-ism: “My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” Your writing is more important.

  4. Brian Meeks
    | Reply

    I remember my mom reading one of her books and chuckling. When she put it down, I decided to give it a look. It was brilliant. When Mom returned, I had to let her have back, but as soon as she finished, I gave it a read and loved it.

    This was a great addition to your collection of stories that make me want to write!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Brian. My mom used to pass her columns to me, especially the ones about unruly teenagers, and say, “Here, you should read this.” Not so subtle, my mom. But I remember laughing all the same. Keeping writing, Brian!

  5. Renee Schuls-Jacobson
    | Reply

    Erma Baumbach was one of my early favorite. I remember receiving a paperback copy of her book If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits. She is an inspiration to every woman. And when she said: “If I can’t write, what am I going to do with my life?” What writer among us can’t relate to that? Thank goodness she persevered. She was truly a testament to a beautiful woman.

    • Debra Eve
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      Renee, thanks so much for your comment. I related so much because, like her, I didn’t make the transition to college so well and ended up dropping out for a time. Thank goodness she found a teacher who believed in her!

  6. Marla Martenson
    | Reply

    Awesome post. I love Erma!!!!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Marla, it was fun to write. I didn’t know she struggled with kidney disease all her life, which makes her humor so much more poignant.

  7. Anne R. Allen
    | Reply

    A great profile of an extraordinary woman!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Anne!

  8. Kassandra Lamb
    | Reply

    I grew up on Erma Bombeck’s humor. I loved, loved, loved her! She had such a zest for life, and she could find humor in anything. I love the quotes above. I laughed out loud. 😀

    • Debra Eve
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      Same here, Kassandra. I hope she’s never forgotten and her books always stay in print!

  9. Sabrina Garie
    | Reply

    What a wonderful post. It really spoke to me. I see myself as a late bloomer, finally allowing myself to really explore my potential as a writer. Its not that the rest of my career choices or twists have not been exciting (and many would consider successful) but its about digging deep into what really makes me feel free, about creating a life I want for myself. So many of my choices have been me trying to create a life that others would see and accept as successful. Now I’m taking that into my own hands.

    • Debra Eve
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      Sabrina, I can completely relate to what you’re saying. I, too, lived someone else’s idea of what my life should be for years (decades). It’s not success or failure that makes a life, it’s steering by your own north star. Congrats on this new phase of your life. There’s something so exciting about a new journey, isn’t there?

  10. Madeleine Kolb
    | Reply

    Well done, Debra. I enjoyed reading this post so much. I hadn’t thought of Erma Bombeck for years, but I too always loved her irreverence and humor. I also loved her her focus on doing what mattered and leaving the rest. Her thoughts on cleaning the frig, for example, made perfect sense when she wrote them and they still do.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Madeleine! I was searching for a woman to write about for this blog fest and noticed it was her birthday that day. I spent such a pleasurable time reading old articles about her. And yes, I agree about the cleaning! Let’s hope she’s never forgotten.

  11. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, I have every single one of the books that were done from Erma’s columns and the books she pub’d on their own. I loved her from day one and still read and adore her. I fancy myself a cross between Gail Parent and Erma when I am writing funny, sad and hapless tales … I love her fresh and unique view of marriage and motherhood … of being a woman in a man’s world and how to do battle with a cluncky old washing machine, survive the septic tank backing up and how to feed the kids on $1.35 a day 🙂 Thanks so much for featuring this great lady. She is so missed !!

    • Debra Eve
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      You’re welcome, Florence. Erma was doing her thing in the 1950s, when to even suggest a woman should or could do something beyond cleaning and child raising was sacrilege. So to write about it with humor took great courage. I could so see parallels with her in your writing!

  12. Coleen Patrick
    | Reply

    Erma Bombeck is such a great inspiration. I’ve always loved her humor. I didn’t realize she was a late bloomer, or that she barely passed freshman comp. Somehow I find that even more inspiring. Thanks Debra!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Coleen. I knew she’d started near her 40s, but I didn’t know she struggled with freshman comp either. And at that point, she been writing for a daily newspaper for three years! It just goes to show, don’t ever lose faith in yourself when someone else’s judgment (and/or standardized tests) are involved!

  13. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Can I tell you how much I love Erma Bombeck? Debra, when I think of Erma, it reminds me of my dear mother-in-law who I was very close to. I could just cry. She and Erma had a similiar sense of humor. Both could make your roar with laughter until you either were rolling on the floor or peed your pants, whichever came first. I just love Erma’s viewpoint of life. Yes, there are other female comediennes, but Erma’s writing and humor was classy and classic. Thank you so much for writing this post. It was perfect Debra! 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Thank you, Karen! You’re mother-in-law sounds like an amazing woman. And you’re right, we have some bright young stars these days (Tina Fey comes to mind), but Erma — she was the real deal.

  14. Ginger Calem
    | Reply

    This is so lovely. I adored Erma. During a particularly tight financial time in my life as a newlywed, I’d go to Barnes and Noble, sit in one of their huge chairs and read Erma’s books. I couldn’t afford to buy them (then), but they made me laugh and feel good, so I’d go back every day after work and before I had to pick up my husband from work (only 1 car) and take the book back off the shelf and read, being very careful never to crimp any pages. Later on, I bought my own copies!

    Thanks for this great tribute!

    • Debra Eve
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      What a great story, Ginger! I know you and your hubby have a fitness studio now, wonderful kids, and much success. But it’s so cool that Erma helped you through those early times.

  15. Darlene Foster
    | Reply

    A wonderful post Debra. I love Erma Bombeck. She was one of a kind and always made you laugh at life.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Darlene. I’m so touched by the outpouring here. It was kismet that her birthday fell on the same day August’s blog fest kicked off!

  16. Reese Ryan
    | Reply

    I have always liked Emma Bombeck, but I didn’t know her whole story or that she is from my home state of Ohio. As a debut author on the other side of 40, I find great inspiration in Erma’s story, and the story of later bloomer women like her. Wonderful article.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Reese. It’s so cool the blog fest is giving us chance to discover each other, too. I loved your site!

  17. Kristy K. James
    | Reply

    Erma Bombeck was great. I have one of her books on one of my shelves. I’m going to have to dig it out. She had a great way of reminding us that life isn’t always as hard as we think it is. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Kristy, thanks so much for dropping by! Somehow missed your comment earlier. You’re so right…just being able to laugh at something takes away much of its difficulty!

  18. Jenny Hansen
    | Reply

    I love it, Debra! Erma Bombeck was one of my favorite ladies of all time. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Not surprised, Jenny, considering what a fabulous sense of humor you have. Thanks!

  19. Catherine Johnson
    | Reply

    What a great post and a great lady. I’d love to read her books :0)

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks! Don’t miss them, Catherine! They encapsulated a whole generation while still being timely today.

  20. Kecia Adams
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for this mini-biography of Erma Bombeck. She was always one of my mom’s favorite writers, and I don’t think she missed a column. I have great memories of laughing till I cried when my mom read from one of Erma’s books on child rearing. One of my favorite quotes of hers: “Housework is a treadmill from futility to oblivion with stop-offs at tedium and counter productivity.” 🙂

    • Debra Eve
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      Love that quote, Kecia! I was just explaining to my husband, who’s British, how huge Erma’s column was because it was syndicated in almost every newspaper. It’s kind of sad to see the end of that era.

  21. Jess Witkins
    | Reply

    You know, I didn’t know much about Erma Bombeck other than some of her humor writing. My mom has one of her books and a friend performed a piece of hers for a forensics competition in the humor category. I will definitely need to check more of her out because she sounds amazing!

    • Debra Eve
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      Do check her out, Jess! She’s truly timeless and I know you’ll enjoy her writing. Thanks for stopping by.

  22. Priska
    | Reply

    As a laterbloomer Erma inspires me.
    In my other job, though I worked long hours, I was pedantic about everything in the house being in order.
    Since I’ve started writing, all of that has gone by the wayside.
    My husband cannot believe the change but likes the what I’ve become.
    I’m more relaxed and approachable, lol.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Good for you, Priska. I was the same. High-powered job, everything in place, stressed to the roots of my hair. Now that I’m writing, I’m not going to say the place is a mess, but certain things don’t get done as much…I vacuumed under the couches the other day and it looked like I’d sucked up another cat! Thank for stopping by!

  23. Ingrid Schaffenburg
    | Reply

    Love love love this! You’ve sparked new inspiration in me with this blog. I’ve been told by some to start up a column like Erma Bombeck and I’m seriously thinking about it. What an amazing woman! Never knew so much about her. Can’t wait to delve into more of her story. A great tribute to her and perfect for the BOAW Blogfest. Thank you!

    • Debra Eve
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      Ingrid, I’ve caught your writing here and there and have always enjoyed it. Go for it!

  24. Ellen M. Gregg
    | Reply

    Erma… What a class act. Her spot-on commentary on life in all its banality took humor to a level that is hard to surpass. Did she write a book on menopause? I’ll need to take a look. I’m grateful for the legacy she left behind, especially given what she faced from a health standpoint. Beautiful woman, and a beautiful tribute to her.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Ellen! I’m not sure she did. But her last book was a compilation of essays, so maybe she wrote a few in there. A real class act.

  25. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Debra –

    Thanks for this! I never explored the woman behind the humor. My mother and I always enjoyed the laughs and witticism, but it’s even more special now that I understand more of what went into its creation. 😀

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Kathy. I didn’t know much about her until I started writing this either. It’s sad that she had a congenital ailment, but she kept so many people laughing for so long!

  26. Sue
    | Reply

    Love Erma- I have one of her quotes framed on my desk. I read all of her books growing up and she has been a major influence in my life. Thank you for bringing back those wonderful memories!

    • Debra Eve
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      Hi Sue, you’re welcome. I hope she’s never forgotten!

  27. Patricia Sands
    | Reply

    Oh yes! Dear, dear Erma! You are so right in including her in the BOAW blogfest. She was indeed beautiful with her wonderful talent to inspire laughter in all of us. It’s taking me a while to work my way through all of the fabulous BOAW posts and it truly is joyful reading.
    I love your focus on Late Bloomers … I think publishing my first novel at age 65 qualifies me to join the group. May I?

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Of course, Patricia! And I’m taking guest posts 🙂 Hope you’ll consider writing one. I agree, it has been so fun to contribute to this blog fest and reading everyone’s wonderful stories. Thanks for stopping by!

  28. Kourtney
    | Reply

    Awesome post Debra! Great contribution to the BOAW BlogFest!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks so much, Kourtney, and thanks for stoppin by!

  29. Lynn Kelley
    | Reply

    Bravo, Debra! I love this post. I’ve always loved Erma Bombeck. This is an awesome post to be part of the Beauty of a Woman Blog Fest!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Lynn. It was so fun going back and reading her stuff again. If I’ve contributed a little to her memory, I’m happy!

  30. Marcia
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,
    As another late bloomer and Erma wannabe, I just loved this post about her and her fabulous wit. I aspire to her achievements and am in awe of what she accomplished.
    I may be late getting started, but like Erma, have no intention of giving up until I have the whole world chuckling.
    Thanks so much for recognizing the contributions of all Late Bloomers. Yahoo!
    Marcia Smart

    • @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you, Marcia! Just popped over to read some of your stuff and it’s seriously funny :). Loved the cougar one — I think you and are in the same boat there!

  31. Lisa Chism
    | Reply

    I’m trying to find a copy of the article she wrote about “nobody’s mom should ever get over 50”. Does anyone know where I can find that?

  32. joyce
    | Reply

    Am so glad that I found your website. Been feeling so much like a failure at 37 (turning 38 pretty soon). Received my BS when I was 36 – a long, winded road – not for lack of enthusiasm, but had to drop out now and then because of responsibilities. I still do intend to start my MS at 41. Saving up for it. Probably will be the oldest in my class, but who cares…dancing and moving forward to my own beat

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Congrats, Joyce! I had to drop out several times too, so I get it. But the older I become, the more I realize that society’s standards for success are completely arbitrary and often based on non-values. Money is the biggest non-value there is…a piece of paper we’ve all decided means “x” and can buy “x” which, as you add more zeroes to it, raises your status. There’s not even a gold standard behind it anymore! Better to make your own meaning.

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