It’s inevitable. If you are a writer, who happens to be a mother, and you write about family life in a way that sometimes makes people laugh, you will eventually come to the Quill in the Stone. According to legend, whoso pulleth it shall be the Next Erma Bombeck. The once and future queen of domestic reporting.
Some seek out the title, and boldly claim it. Others are carried to it by devoted fans, or thrust toward it by eager editors, agents or publicists — all wanting to know, is it her? Is she the one? The Next Erma Bombeck?
So far, no one has proven to be. Least of all, me.
I was a reluctant pilgrim to that altar anyway. The first time an industry person invoked the “Next Erma Bombeck,” I brushed it off as marketing hyperbole, and evidence that the person on the other end of the line really didn’t get me at all. I may have been mildly insulted. In my mind, Erma Bombeck was a period piece, dated and linty, like fuzzy toilet seat covers and velour jumpsuits. Her name conjured yellowed newspaper clippings Scotch-taped to avocado green refrigerator doors, dusty paperbacks stacked next to gold tone picture frames and ceramic figurines. Mrs. Bombeck had had her day, but I didn’t think she was still relevant.
I wouldn’t say that aloud, of course, because she seemed to mean something to an awful lot of people. Again and again, her name was brought up, and my mind gradually creaked open to admit curiosity. Why was this woman’s footprint (or fuzzy slipper-print) so big anyway? What was it people missed about her? Even my husband remembers reading her column as a teenager. Patrick– who spent those years worshipping Keith Richards, girls and cars. What could Erma Bombeck have possibly had to say to him then, or to me now?
I wouldn’t know, you see, because I hadn’t actually read her. My opinions were based on nothing, just the occasional peripheral glance at a book title in the thrift shop bin, or a casual scroll through a long list of quotes making the email rounds at Mother’s Day.
Then my friend Karen went to the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop in 2010, and wrote about it on her blog. A year later, she read my book, and told me it reminded her of Erma. I tried to deflect it, out of habit, but Karen is not an easy person to deflect. “No, really,” she said, and went on to explain what made Erma’s voice so resonant, and why I should be honored by the comparison.
Resonant, yes. Clearly. But relevant?
Yes. God, yes.
You see, I finally went to the source. I read Erma Bombeck all the way to Dayton last weekend. I got to hear her words read by her husband and children while I was there. I read her again all the way back home. It’s a good thing I waited so long, because I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to publish Planting Dandelions if I had already read Wit’s End. Of almost every chapter, I could have said, “Erma already said that.”
When her son, Andy, read “his” essay, Marching to a Different Drummer, I wept because I could have written it about my middle son. It was impossible not to project my own hopes and fears onto the Bombeck “kids.”
“You turned out okay!” I blurted to Andy later, when we bumped into each other over the coffee machine. He laughed. “I don’t know,” he said, eyes twinkling. “Are any of us really okay?”
A riddle. Just the kind of answer my own coyote cub might give.
“But you’re proud of your mother’s work.”
I don’t think there ever will be a Next Erma Bombeck. One reason is the end of the golden age of newspaper syndication. There isn’t that kind of central broadcast into the home anymore. We don’t get a daily paper. My children aren’t idly flipping through the family section as they eat their breakfast cereal. There’s no need to clip anything to the refrigerator door or the coffee break room when we can just toss it into Facebook’s rushing stream. Things get passed around in the viral age, but they don’t get to stick around. Erma was everyone’s next-door neighbor–the one who could let herself in the side door and pour her own coffee. Familiar to the husband, the kids, the dog. It’s hard to imagine any writer with that kind of access now. We may have a favorite mom blogger we read faithfully, day in and out, but how many of us can say our husbands, friends and neighbors have even heard of her?
Which brings me to the other reason there can never be a Next Erma Bombeck: because there are so many. Every blogger who has ever written about family life can (and should) claim direct lineage to Erma. She is the mother of all mother bloggers, the one who opened our readers’ doors for us and showed us where to find the coffee cups. She wasn’t the first woman writer to tell public stories about private life, but she was instrumental in making it okay. In an era of crushing cultural expectations of wives and mothers, Erma was willing to expose herself as flawed and real. She was the ultimate subvert; the one who penetrates the mainstream.
I’ll never be the Next Erma Bombeck. But if I ever receive the comparison with anything other than honor and humility, may all my books be stuffed into avocado green refrigerators and sunk at sea. As a mother and a writer, I both owe Erma and own her. From now on, I’m proud to do both.