Long before mothers were blogging about their daily lives, Erma Bombeck’s syndicated newspaper column — “At Wit’s End” — acquired a legion of faithful followers by mixing her musings about marriage and motherhood with healthy doses of humor. Born and raised in Dayton, Erma certainly knew her subject. She and her husband, Bill, had three school-age children when, at age 37, she began writing the column on a makeshift desk in a bedroom of her suburban Centerville home.
Shortly after a Dayton newspaper started running “At Wit’s End” in 1965, it was syndicated and eventually appeared in 900 U.S. newspapers. Three times a week, some 30 million readers turned to Erma for comic relief from the foibles and frustrations of family life. Erma observed that socks disappear in the dryer; that folks choose bathing suits more carefully than spouses; that coat hangers seem to reproduce in closets; and that nobody ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed. She also had a gift for coining proverb-worthy one-liners — “Never have more children than you have car windows” — that are as insightful and relevant now as they were when Erma wrote them.
Erma says: “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.”
Her pointed housewife humor made Erma the nation’s favorite mom and a nationally known media personality. Time magazine even put her (and three of her clever quips about housework, cooking, and guilt) on its cover in 1984. “Erma wrote about the ordinary in an extraordinary way,” says Teri Rizvi, founder of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. “She told a story in 450 words that had people across the country laughing over their morning coffee.”
Erma says: “Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
While her print column paved the way for today’s digital mommy-blogs, Erma’s stories were self-deprecating instead of self-centered. She turned everyday incidents into allegories, and her columns were free of angst, petty complaints, and the names of her three children. “She was skillful at keeping us generic enough that people were able to read about us and still think, ‘That’s my kid,’” says Matthew Bombeck, a California writer and Erma’s youngest offspring. Erma realized that both laughter and families are universal, and because she never made her column overtly personal, women particularly identified with her honest and unpretentious writing style. “She gave a voice to women, and especially to moms,” notes Bombeck. “She said that there was dignity and humanity in raising children and that it was important.”
Though she never sugar-coated the challenges of domesticity, Erma valued her role as a parent more than her career. “I never remember her not being there for the things happening in our lives,” says Bombeck. “She wasn’t just home for dinner; she made dinner.” Indeed, as a youngster, Bombeck was so oblivious to the success of Erma’s column that he told someone his mother was a syndicated communist. “We really had no idea what she did,” says Bombeck. “To us, she was Mom.”
Erma, however, was a mom who was serious about writing humor. “Because she had a journalism background and three deadlines a week, my mother was very disciplined and hard-working,” says Bombeck. Rather than wait for the literary muse to strike, Erma carried a legal pad with her, and whenever things happened that gave her ideas for her column, she jotted them down. Erma religiously blocked out writing time while her children were at school, and if she closed the door to her “inner sanctum,” they understood that Mom wanted to focus. “If we needed something,” Bombeck recalls, “we’d slip a note under the door. We knew not to disturb her work time.”
Erma says: “Housework, if you do it right, will kill you.”
In 1971, the Bombecks moved to Arizona, where Bill pursued a graduate degree. Erma’s fame, fortune, and stature grew as she wrote best-selling books and tackled television, but she never forgot her Dayton roots and maintained close ties to her alma mater, the University of Dayton. Although Erma always had writing ambitions, it wasn’t until a UD English professor, Tom Price, informed her, “You can write,” that she was sure of her talent. “His words,” says Bombeck, “really validated her and made her think she could do something with her writing.”
Erma says: “Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
When Erma died in 1996, she was arguably the nation’s most popular columnist. She never won a Pulitzer Prize, but ordinary Americans gave her a far higher honor by posting her columns on their refrigerator doors. Just in time for what would have been Erma’s 90th birthday in 2017, packed houses for the recent stage play about her — Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End — proved that her words still resonate, and her humor is timeless.
“My mom had a pretty remarkable life,” says Bombeck. “She was one of those people who had a talent and used everything she had.”
Funny lady, funny workshop
For information about the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, visit www.humorwriters.org. The biennial workshop is dedicated to humor writing, and the next one is scheduled April 5-7, 2018. “‘You can write’ is our mantra, and it sets the stage for what the workshop is all about,” says director Teri Rizvi.