Erma Bombeck a Suburban Sage, Even From the Grave
She kept homemakers in stitches with her writing on marriage, kids, dirty dishes and how to hang the toilet paper.
Ten years after Erma Bombeck’s death, her humor still has resonance.
A growing number of people -- as many as 500 a day -- visit the Erma Bombeck Online Museum, a website operated by her alma mater, the University of Dayton. A writers workshop bearing her name sells out every year. And public television stations around the country began airing a documentary on her May 1.
“Her humor just has staying power,” said Tim Bete, curator of the museum.
Malcolm Kushner of Santa Cruz, Calif., who teaches professionals how to use humor in their jobs, said Bombeck’s humor was timeless because it was based on family relationships and everyday aggravations.
“If cavemen could read,” he said, “they’d be laughing at her column.”
Bombeck, who was born in Dayton, started her career in junior high by writing columns for the school newspaper. She began doing humor columns for the (Dayton) Journal-Herald in 1952, and in the early days would crank them out from a cramped bedroom on a typewriter balanced on a plank supported by cinder blocks. Much of her material came from her experience raising three children in suburban Centerville.
For example, she suggested pasting a label on the toilet paper spindle to give instructions for replacing the roll. “Then everyone in the house would know what Mama knows,” she wrote.
She had plenty of observations about the opposite sex too.
“What’s with you men? Would hair stop growing on your chest if you asked directions somewhere?” she wrote.
Bombeck’s columns and books served as coping mechanisms for many people trying to raise families, Bete said.
“Her writing is still passed down from generation to generation,” he said. “I can’t think of too many authors where that happens.”
The Bombeck online museum, www.ErmaMuseum.org, had 39,000 visitors in 2003 -- the first full year it was up. This year, more than 180,000 visitors are expected.
Chris Lamb, professor of media studies at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said Bombeck brought laughter and relief to those who feared they were in it alone.
“Once you start having kids, you think she’s peeking in your window,” he said.
One of Lamb’s favorite Bombeck stories is about a confrontation with her grocer, who complained that her young son was eating fruit from the produce section as they shopped. Bombeck suggested that her son be weighed both before and after shopping, and she would pay the grocer the difference, Lamb said.
The PBS documentary “Erma Bombeck: A Legacy of Laughter” includes Bombeck’s response to the question of what kind of mother she is.
“Who knows?” she wrote. “I showed up for it. I worked a lot of overtime.”
Bombeck wrote more than 4,000 columns. At the height of her popularity in 1986, her column ran in 900 newspapers read by 30 million people. She also wrote several books, including “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank,” “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” and “When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.”
“My mom’s refrigerator was covered with her articles,” said Richard Wonderling, who produced the documentary. “It’s almost like she knighted the housewives of America.”
Bill Bombeck said his late wife had a knack for capturing the essence of family life.
“Erma just had a way of relating to this, and people could picture themselves in the situations she wrote about,” he said.
But Bombeck also wrote about serious issues. “I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise” was a best-selling book about the hopes of young cancer survivors.
And in the 1970s, Bombeck campaigned across the country to push passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Bombeck museum includes family photos, home movies, her report cards and her columns. It also features episodes of the Bombeck-written sitcom “Maggie,” which aired for eight weeks on ABC in late 1981 and early 1982, and clips of her regular appearances on “Good Morning America.”
Bombeck died in 1996 at age 69 of complications from a kidney transplant. Although she lived in Paradise Valley, Ariz., she was buried in Dayton.
“She’s still the best suburban columnist America has ever had,” Lamb said. “Everyone since is just someone who came after Erma.”