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Reflections June 2016

The Raven Lunatic

Why Erma Bombeck Has Staying Power

By Amy Abbott

He admits he wasn’t too aware of his mother’s writing and fame as a child. Once asked what his mother did, young Matt said she was a “syndicated communist.”

Twenty years ago Erma Bombeck died at 69 of complications from a kidney transplant. Bombeck, a native of Dayton, Ohio, rose to fame as a newspaper columnist, author, and ultimately, regular guest on “Good Morning, America.”  At her peak, she wrote three columns a week for 900 newspapers. She never won a Pulitzer prize and didn’t make it off the then-Women’s Pages. She was recognized with the Thurber Prize, a coveted award also won by her idol Robert Benchley.

Her legacy endures today among a new generation of women, and some men, writers, mothers, fathers, and humorists.

The University of Dayton holds Bombeck’s papers and established the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop. I was fortunate to attend the biennial workshop in March 2016. It was much more than a writer’s workshop.  The three-day event was a tribute to Bombeck and her family, as well as a “hands-on” workshop with A-list speakers, writers, and humorists, including Roy Blount, Jr., Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, Leighann Lord, Alan Zweibel, Amy Ephron and Gina Barreca.

Every day when participants entered the conference center, we were greeted with one of Erma’s old IBM Selectric typewriters. For writers who “composed at the typewriter” on machines like this one and their non-electric predecessors, seeing Erma’s typewriter was magical.

Erma’s three adult children, Betsy, Andy, and Matt attended the workshop.  I had the opportunity to speak with Matt, who affirmed that he believes his mother would be pleased that her work is still enjoyed.

He admits he wasn’t too aware of his mother’s writing and fame as a child. Once asked what his mother did, young Matt said she was a “syndicated communist.”

Bombeck wrote from her suburban Dayton, Ohio home while her children were in school or after they had gone to bed.

Matt most appreciates his mother’s book on travel, and fondly remembers their family trips. The book When You Look like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home was one of her later works, written in 1992.

Why does Erma Bombeck matter today?

My mother read Erma’s “At Wit’s End” newspaper column and all of her books. Like millions of other women, Mom clipped out her newspaper favorites and stuck them on the refrigerator. She frequently chased me around the house to read a portion of Erma’s column. Mom, who had a silly streak and an excellent sense of humor, often quoted Erma.

Erma lacked the sophistication of Joan Didion and other female “new journalists.” But, who can imagine leaning over the fence with Joan Didion and sharing a cup of coffee? Erma’s writing was completely accessible and brought you inside her house, with the dirty laundry, socks on the ceiling, and pet deaths. She wrote about the reality that everyone who is a parent or a spouse accepts.  Erma tackled the most serious issues in life using the most simplistic metaphors. She also managed to remain modest, even after her books had been printed 15 million times.

A friend of mine, who is a travel writer, met Erma and Bill Bombeck on an agency trip in Belize in the early 1990s. My friend’s comment to me recently was that Erma seemed almost embarrased and certainly taken aback by the attentions from the travel writers. She had recently written the travel book her son Matt mentioned above, and still was humbled in the presence of all the other travel writers.

Erma’s writing is ordinary, yet extraordinary. It takes tremendous skill to garner laughter and tears from the same anecdote. Her work is timeless and accessible. In a strange way, my discovery of Erma in my 50s is a link to my late mother, as well as further understanding of her life. All three Bombeck children, Betsy, Andrew, and Matt, are also baby boomers. And I imagine it was beautiful and terrible for them at the same time. Workshop attendees loved their mother, and none of them knew her personally. But, we all knew her, her home, her longings, her view of the world. She spoke for many generations of women.

Some memorables from “Brainy Quotes.”

“The only reason I would take up jogging is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.”

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I will hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'”

“My kids always perceived the bathroom as a place where you wait it out until all the groceries are unloaded from the car.”

Rest in Peace, dear Erma.


Amy McVay Abbott is a Midwestern journalist and the author of three books, compilations of her popular newspaper column “The Raven Lunatic.” Her web site is:

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