The Once and Future Queen. Finding Erma Bombeck.

April 26th, 2012

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.”

“Very.”

They’re okay.

***

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.

 

12 Responses to “The Once and Future Queen. Finding Erma Bombeck.”

  1. marilee pittman says:

    A beautiful homage to a wonderful writer who was reverently read aloud at my house…

  2. Pat Hammond says:

    There is a strong comparison, Kyran, but you are “today” and that’s why young women can identify with you and old women (me) can see that the world of motherhood hasn’t changed all that much.

  3. and now I am even more excited for your book of wonderful words to arrive in my mailbox today (I decided not to lug boxes of books from Erma and made Amazon my new best friend)
    I did not grow up with the words of Erma, but last week, I soaked in all the goodness and the funny that people shared. And the tears, yes, tears. it seemed that every speaker brought me to tears at some point.
    (avocado green refrigerators should all be at the bottom of the ocean)
    xxx

  4. GrandeMocha says:

    I loved Erma. You should wear the label loud & proud! We had a green fridge until the late 90’s. It ran forever.

  5. Kim says:

    I didn’t know Erma until I read this. But then I realized I do because it’s just a part of our society. That’s an accomplishment for a writer if I ever heard of one.

  6. dida says:

    So happy to see that you wrote about finding Erma in the foreign land of picket fences and domesticity. She was an American icon, that woman… and…

    I admit it… there were many days that I secretly wished that Erma Bombeck was my mother. She was just so personally accessible (something my own mother wasn’t able to do easily) and regularly at my fingertips in my hometown newspaper.

    I started reading her column when I was around 11 or 12 (I don’t believe my mother ever read her column or her books) and I got so excited when I could hear her voice and see her face when I was in my teens, eating my breakfast before school started ala “Good Morning America.” I guess you could say she might have mothered me in ways that my own mother never could.

    When she died so relatively young I was heartbroken… but I didn’t quite understand why I took it so hard. Then when I began writing again after I became a mother eight years ago, it finally hit home. She spoke to the future writer in me… and the future mother in me. She was everyone’s friend and mother and comrade in housework and parenting with humor, and I loved her for it.

    You possess so many of the same qualities in your voice as a writer and a mother that Erma had. Rest assured, Kyran, there is a child out there who is reading your blog or even your book on days when his or her own mother isn’t accessible.

  7. Alexandra says:

    Erma Bombeck made me laugh when I was 8, and she makes me laugh in a different way now that I’m 40 years past 8.

    She is so funny and there is no comparison.

    She had a gift, and her humor is timeless.

    There is no next Erma Bombeck. And the treat of having her children, spouse, assistant, DIL, read their favorite works to us is something I will forever feel lucky to witness.

    It was wonderful to meet you, I hope you attend the 2014.

    Seeing you again had me read your book a second time: and hearing your voice this time brought the words into the realm of real for me.

    Thank you for the thrill.

    Alexandra

  8. Yes! Today there are many many Ermas. And after your talk at the Erma conference, I am proud to say I am but one part of that large tribe. I think Erma would be amazed at what she started.

  9. Sarah says:

    Kyran – yes, yes and even more yes. I so hear this. Often I’ve had someone say that something I wrote reminded them of Erma Bombeck, and while I always knew there was no way I was even in the same ballpark, I figured it was simply because Erma is synonymous with the entire genre of “motherhood perspective”. She told every mother, everywhere, that not only was it OK to be imperfect in our role, it was maybe even preferable if it meant living an authentic life. Our children would be better for it, as would we.

    That said, your voice bangs a gong, for me, and I’m sure many others. Your work resonates because it’s authentic in that Erma-esque way. Maybe it’s that whole “don’t write for applause” mentality, or maybe it’s a wickedly wonderful combination of all the stuff that makes a person inspiring and interesting, but whatever it is, I’m so glad you decided to embrace that voice (and then share it with us at the EBWW).

  10. Yes. This. Glad you went so I could read about it. (I’m still sore about missing it. Sigh.)

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