Note: The following is my latest published column in the three papers for which I write twice a month. It printed around the date of Erma's 95th birthday.
by Donna Cronk
I hadn’t thought much about Erma Bombeck in some time. The national columnist was part of the average American homemaker’s life for 30 years through her consistent output of domestic common sense and humor.
I’m sure that many women considered her almost a friend who dropped by whenever the paper arrived.
It seemed that she would always be at it, cranking out copy from her laundry-room beat; that maybe we haven’t heard from her in a while due to a backlog of dirty clothes, with a funny story coming right up about how that happened.
Her death at age 69 in 1996 meant we would never share her life’s roadmap through her 70s, 80s, and even now, in what her 90-something self would have to say about life and aging. Today, oddly, I’m feeling the loss of that loss.
The humorist came back on my radar recently when my friend, Cathy, mentioned that she wanted to record a PBS show coming on late that night about Erma. I decided to stay up and watch it. While not a new program, I had never seen it before so it was new to me. It brought back memories.
When I came to the New Castle paper in 1989, Erma’s columns arrived in a large white Universal Press Syndicate envelope and had to be typed into our news program. It’s hard to remember how we got things done before the internet changed everything, but for sure, there was considerably more retyping copy into video display terminals (VDTs).
I sometimes spent entire afternoons keying in club minutes and wedding write-ups, for example. It fell to me to type Erma’s work.
I did the math, and at that time, she was a year younger than I am now. She lived only another seven years, passing from complications of a kidney transplant, a few days after penning her final column.
How can it be that she’s been gone for an entire generation—folks born, raised, and then some—without the wit and wisdom of one of the funniest women who ever knew her way around home row. I wonder if anyone under 50 has heard of her.
Erma is funny and brilliant on paper, but I didn’t think her charm translated well into TV spots. I wanted to laugh … but (sorry, Erma), it didn’t work. She was a paper person through and through. So was I, getting so nervous I nearly froze back then when I had to speak at newspaper-sponsored recipe contests.
I thought her lack of stage presence made her all the more believable and “like us.” She looked and sounded like your own mom, sister, or yourself, up there on the big stage or in the talk-show-guest’s hot seat.
Her gift was finding the relatable insights and humorous irony in ordinary-life situations. Not once or occasionally, but cranking out weekly masterpieces with the same inch-count as the previous ones, and the ones to come the next week. She pulled a writer’s version of dancing backward in high heels.
Her humor had none of the mean-girl snark nor insinuation that someone of a different political or faith bent than hers is a horrible person. She found the common ground. I couldn’t tell you her politics or denomination.
Erma inspired us. She truly was “just a housewife” from Ohio, and she really did make the casseroles and care for her family despite 30 million readers looking in, well, reading what she wrote.
Once I won a statewide newspaper-contest award for column writing. The judge jotted in the comments section that you never know from where the next Erma Bombeck will come.
She didn’t come from me, but putting Erma’s name in the same sentence to describe my writing was worth more than the engraved plaque. And I do like engraved plaques.
These days, I think of Erma in a new way. How is it that 70 once seemed old and now… not so much. I told a friend the other day that, “When I use the phrase ‘older woman,’ it will always mean someone older than I am.”
Should I live to be 100, the "older woman" I mention will be at least 100.1 years old.
Years ago we bought Brian’s mom a book collection of Erma’s columns for a Christmas gift. When Mary passed, and we went through things in preparation for an estate sale, I saved back the Bombeck book. I thought it was surely dated, though.
What did I know? I was then a younger woman in my late forties.
Now? Even though the hunky actors she mentions on her pages are dead, and we use computers instead of typewriters, and too much comedy has turned vicious, I expect that if I read that book, I’d find that Erma is timeless.
The last time I sat down and read her work, or enjoyed it as I retyped her columns for the paper, we weren’t peers—writing or otherwise. Now we are. I’ve caught up. We’ve both seen greater or lesser chunks of our sixties. We both had columns for at least three decades. Heck, we both had husbands who were school principals. She got a kidney transplant; my older son works in kidney-transplant surgeries. We have plenty in common.
It sure would have been nice to read Erma’s take on the sunset side of life, those missing years she didn’t get; the ones I still hope to see.
The unique twist of being common, yet one of a kind: that was Erma. She gave us the sustenance we needed to assemble a meatloaf after a long day, can the green beans when the garden is on summer overload, fold the laundry (yet again) and run the sweeper (yet again). And come on! No matter what other Big Things we’re doing, who likes a crunchy carpet or damp laundry? Seeing to the mundane is part of life. Erma knew that. She made it interesting.
Erma would now be 95. I miss her.
Donna Cronk is retired from 31 years at the New Castle Courier-Times. She still writes columns for three papers, and enjoys giving programs and attending book club discussions about her new book, There’s a Clydesdale in the Attic: Reflections on Keeping and Letting Go. Connect with her at email@example.com.