How Could Anyone Forget Erma Bombeck?
A woman of her time.
If you are younger than 25, you probably missed it. You missed the life of Erma Bombeck. You can still share in the joy of it, but instead of finding it in your newspaper every week, you’re going to have to go looking for it.
The column I remember best was entitled, “I Am An American!” complete with the exclamation point in the headline. Those of you who know the basics of newspaper journalism, know that is a faux pas that gets you called before your editor before the presses run. You’d better have a darned good reason for using it. Apparently Erma did.
When I went cyber searching for the column I found endless references to the most popular quote from the piece:
“You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but by family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you’ve overeaten, but it’s patriotism.”
Now, there is no debating that is a quote for the ages, but every other word from the article is as well. I still cannot imagine why it took me over an hour on the Internet (a lifetime in online terms) to uncover the original column, but find it, I did:
I Am An American!
by Erma Bombeck
The American people do something better than anyone in the world. They love their country.
A walloping 80 percent admitted this in a recent Gallup poll. That’s pretty amazing when you realize that patriotism is a lot like sex to people. It’s too personal to talk about in public or to flaunt on a bumper sticker.
Patriotism is also hard to diagnose. Most people don’t realize they’ve got it.
Some people look at the Statue of Liberty and cannot speak. Others look at the flag on the side of the Space Shuttle and tears begin to well in their eyes. Occasionally, people will find themselves sitting a little taller when an athlete bends down to receive an Olympics medal and the massive United States flag unfurls behind him. Or the throat may hurt when a hostage puts his hand over his heart and salutes the flag he has not seen for 14 months.
These may seem like flu symptoms. It’s patriotism.
Sometimes you travel with patriotism and don’t know it. Like the Russian who said to me, “I’ve never been to the United States. What are the borders like?”
I told her there were no border patrols or checkpoints or walls. State lines were open and free with only an amused California trooper who watches you eat three oranges and four bananas which you cannot bring into California.
Or the Australian woman who cornered me on a book tour and said, “Tell me how far American women are now in their struggle for liberation so I will know where we’ll be 20 years from now.”
I thought the flush was menopausal. It was patriotism.
We take for granted that we elect peanut farmers to the presidency, have a Bill of Rights for children, and give hurricanes human names. We have a bell that is a symbol of freedom with a crack in it, are a nation of immigrants from every portion of the world, and have more people who watch “Dallas” on television than voted in the last election.
You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but by family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you’ve overeaten, but it’s patriotism.
Quotes Erma is best known for:
Who writes like that? Actually no one does now that she is gone. Erma was from Centerville, Ohio, and she lived across the street from another mid-century icon, Phil Donahue, renown talk-show host back when there was nothing to apologize for in that job title. Makes you wonder what they put in the water in Centerville back then?
Erma made a name for herself writing touchy-feely, funny articles about being a housewife in the 1960’s for her hometown newspaper. National syndication, several New York Times bestsellers, and a regular TV spot as a contributor to “Good Morning America” grew from that original boredom doing household chores.
She is primarily remembered for cute sayings like the following:
“Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids.”
“Housework, if it is done properly, can cause brain damage.”
“Every puppy should have a boy.”
On a deeper level, she also coined the following phrases:
“Laughter rises out of tragedy when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage.”
“Don't confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.”
"Humorists can never start to take themselves seriously. It's literary suicide."
Then there were moments when she struck a raw nerve so precisely, she had the skill of a brain surgeon:
“Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.”
“There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, 'Yes, I've got dreams, of course I've got dreams.' Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they're still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box. It takes an uncommon amount of guts to put your dreams on the line, to hold them up and say, 'How good or how bad am I?' That's where courage comes in.”
But there was more to Erma than just that:
And a personal favorite as the mother of a daughter from the post-liberation generation:
“We've got a generation now who were born with semi-equality. They don't know how it was before, so they think, this isn't too bad. We're working. We have our attache' cases and our three piece suits. I get very disgusted with the younger generation of women. We had a torch to pass, and they are just sitting there. They don't realize it can be taken away. Things are going to have to get worse before they join in fighting the battle.”
Erma and I also had motherhood in common. We both had a daughter first, then two sons. My second favorite of her columns was this one from the unique perspective of a Mom three times over:
A mother’s wardrobe
• 1st baby: You begin wearing maternity clothes as soon as your doctor
confirms your pregnancy.
• 2nd baby: You wear your regular clothes for as long as possible.
• 3rd baby: Your maternity clothes ARE your regular clothes.
A mom preparing for the Birth
• 1st baby: You practice your breathing religiously.
• 2nd baby: You don’t bother practicing because you remember that last
time, breathing didn’t do a thing.
• 3rd baby: You ask for an epidural in your 8th month.
The Babies Clothing
• 1st baby: You pre-wash your newborn’s clothes, color-coordinate them,
and fold them neatly in the baby’s little bureau.
• 2nd baby: You check to make sure that the clothes are clean and discard only the ones with the darkest stains.
• 3rd baby: Boys can wear pink, can’t they?
• 1st baby: If the pacifier falls on the floor, you put it away until you can go home and wash and boil it.
• 2nd baby: When the pacifier falls on the floor, you squirt it off with some juice from the baby’s bottle.
• 3rd baby: You wipe it off on your shirt and pop it back in.
• 1st baby: You change your baby’s diapers every hour, whether they need it or not.
• 2nd baby: You change their diaper every 2 to 3 hours, if needed.
• 3rd baby: You try to change their diaper before others start to
complain about the smell or you see it sagging to their knees.
• 1st baby: The first time you leave your baby with a sitter, you call
home 5 times.
• 2nd baby: Just before you walk out the door, you remember to leave a
number where you can be reached.
• 3rd baby: You leave instructions for the sitter to call only if she sees blood.
• 1st baby: You spend a good bit of every day just gazing at the baby.
• 2nd baby: You spend a bit of every day watching to be sure your older
child isn’t squeezing, poking, or hitting the baby.
• 3rd baby: You spend a little bit of every day hiding from the children.
I would have sworn another of my favorite quotes from her was part of the list above, but it doesn't include the fact that parents have enough pictures of the first baby doing nothing more than sleeping to circle the globe, but the third baby's birth and high school graduation are on the same roll of film. It's only funny because it is almost true! To appreciate this humor though you have to remember film.
If I’ve piqued your interest in this amazing writer, either for the first time or with a lucky reminder, then I’ve justified my existence for the day (month/year). I’d love to include the amazing column Erma wrote about God creating Mothers or her never-to-be-equaled list of what she would do differently in life after learning she had terminal cancer. I’ll leave those to the curious reader. As it is, I’ll be lucky if the HubPages duplicate content police don’t pull this tribute. If they do, I’ll apologize profusely and plead with them to realize you can not write a hub honoring a great writer and not use that writer’s words – at least some of them.
In closing, I’ll simply quote the New York Times Book Review of her final work published after her untimely death in 1996. “Forever, Erma” is a modest measure of our loss.”