Erma Bombeck: American Humorist

by Melannie Svoboda SND on May 22, 2017

One of my heroes is Erma Bombeck, the American humorist who entertained millions of us every week with her syndicated column, “At Wit’s End.” How this ordinary stay-at-home mom became a national comedian is a fascinating story.

Erma (nee Fiste) Bombeck was born near Dayton, Ohio in 1927. Her father, a crane operator, died when she was only nine. As a little girl, Erma enjoyed singing and tap dancing. In school she was an excellent student and an avid reader. In junior high and high school, she wrote both serious and humorous columns for the student newspapers. After graduation she worked for a time for The Dayton Herald as a copygirl. Eventually she attended the University of Dayton, a Catholic college operated by the Marianist priests and brothers. Her English professor, Brother Tom Price, recognized her talent and encouraged her writing. In 1949, Erma graduated with a degree in English and became a life-long supporter of her alma mater.

In 1949 she also became a Catholic and married Bill Bombeck, a fellow student and a veteran of World War II and the Korean front. Bill became an educator while Erma worked in public relations and other writing jobs. When they were told they would never have children, the couple adopted a little girl, Betsy, in 1953. A few years later, though, Erma gave birth to two sons, Andrew and Matthew.

Erma decided to put her writing aside and became a full-time, stay-at-home Mom. But in 1964 she began writing again—about something she knew very well: family life in suburbia. She was paid $3 for each of her columns for the local newspaper. But soon, her column was picked up by more and more newspapers until, in 1978, it was syndicated in 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada and read by over 30 million people. Erma became something of a national celebrity and started appearing on radio and TV. All the while she continued to chronicle life as a wife and mother. In the process, she made millions of us smile, laugh, and even cry.

A young Erma with her family.

Erma wrote, for example, “Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.” On choosing a spouse, she said: “People shop for a bathing suit with more care than they do for a husband or wife. The rules are the same. Look for something you’ll feel comfortable wearing. Allow for room to grow.” Of men, she wrote, “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

She had much advice to offer about raising children. “Never have more children than you have car windows… Never lend your car to anyone to whom you have given birth.” She dispensed her wit and wisdom on other topics as well: “Sometimes I can’t figure designers out. It’s as if they flunked human anatomy…Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died… Cats invented self-esteem.” On a more serious level, she wrote: “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere… Our children need our love the most when they deserve it the least… When humor goes, there goes civilization.”

In addition to her column, Erma wrote 15 books, most of them best sellers. The titles reflect her sense of humor: The Grass Is always Greener over the Septic Tank, Just Wait till You Have Children of Your Own, and If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? One of the treasured books on my bookshelf is her book I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. That book might seem unusual for a nun to have, but one of my students, years ago, gave it to me. She had it personally inscribed to me by Erma. The inscription reads: “For Sister Melannie, I have made it through prayer and a sense of humor—in that order! Erma Bombeck.”

Erma was a breast cancer survivor. At age 20, she was diagnosed with a rare, genetic

The Bombeck house in Centerville, OH, now a designated historic building.

kidney disease, a fact she kept private. For years, few people knew she had to have regular dialysis. Finally, in April 1996, she underwent a kidney transplant. Sadly, she died two weeks later from complications.

One of my favorite quotations of Erma’s is this one: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope I would not have a single talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” I think the world is a better and happier place because Erma Bombeck used all her talents in such a generous and loving way.

I chose a happy song for today. After all, we’re still in the Easter season. This is “Oh Happy Day” from Sister Act 2 starring Whoopi Goldberg. I hope it makes you smile and tap your feet!

 

What strikes you most about Erma Bombeck?

What did you think of the song?

Are there other humorists today that help us laugh at ourselves in a healthy and wholesome way?

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

John Hopkins May 22, 2017 at 3:52 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie. Thanks for reminding us just how amazing Erma Bombeck was! My late father-in-law loved her and was always quoting her. Kerry and I would go over to his house, and he’d sometimes read her whole column to us. She never seemed to take herself too seriously. God bless her!

Reply

Kathleen Magiera May 22, 2017 at 5:21 am

Sr. Melannie,

Great reflection on Erma Bombeck! I remember her columns well. She spoke from the heart with just the right amount of humor. We need that kind of humor in these turbulent times.

The song was the perfect compliment to Erma.

Kathleen

Reply

Lorna May 22, 2017 at 8:46 am

I met Erma a couple of times when I worked for a doctor in Dayton in the early 70’s. She’d rush in and plop down in the waiting room and enjoyed the quiet. I was immediately told to go out and buy her a box of chocolates as my boss just thought the world of her- as we all did. She was always witty but more importantly generous and kind.

Reply

Helen Larkins May 22, 2017 at 10:05 am

Erma was my hero. With 5 children in 10 years,
I was constantly in a state of chaos.
My favorite advice from Erma was to empty the ironing basket into the Goodwill basket.
We would love to have to come to visit us in Florida at Espiritu Santo.
We remember your retreat several years ago with the SND sister.
Blessings, Helen

Reply

Maureen May 22, 2017 at 10:09 am

Thank you Sister and Erma for a trip down memory Lane when life seemed a little kinder.

Reply

Mary Ries May 22, 2017 at 10:18 am

I live in Greater Cincinnati and as a belated Mother’s Day gift am taking my mother-in-law to Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park to see “Erma Bombeck – At Wit’s End”. I had forgotten how popular she was until I tried to get tickets – many of the shows are sold out – I believe the play has been extended. Although I am in my mid 50’s and my mother-in-law in her 80’s, we both fondly remember reading her column in the local paper. Can’t wait to see the play!

Reply

Betty Bramble Horosko May 22, 2017 at 10:18 am

When she was dying she wrote a column that changed my life. One thing I remember was don’t take yourself to seriously. So true.

Reply

Sharon Tressel May 22, 2017 at 10:43 am

Dear Sr. Melanie,
Thank you for today’s gift. Smiles and rhythmical movements are so healing! Then in today’s Living Faith, I meet you again as you describe being draped with “garlands of flowers” by God and sharing that joy with others. Another gift, and welcomed by one recovering from surgery. You are one who helps me lighten up a bit and enjoy life as I listen to and see more of God’s presence all around me. Thank you.

Reply

Barbara May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am

A great reminder to not take life too seriously. Laughter is a gift and I’m sure that God laughs with us. Indeed, God must look upon us and often find us pretty funny at times.. Erma Bombeck inspired laughter with her reflections and she surely lived her mission in life. “Oh Happy Day!” – a happy way to begin a new week … and a thought to carry into every new day of the week. Thank you, Sister Melannie.

Reply

Ann Jurata May 22, 2017 at 11:15 am

I am fondly reminded of all the joy I received reading the Erma Bombeck columns. Am I wrong in thinking that her daughter assumed writing the column when Erma was so ill? Thanks.

Reply

Ginger Haug May 22, 2017 at 12:14 pm

I too loved Erma, had all of her books (wonder where they are now. I could use a dose of her wisdom and humor. Thank you for reminding us of this wonderful woman. Blessings on our day!

Reply

Mary L. May 22, 2017 at 1:21 pm

I followed the link from my “Living Faith” devotional, and found this wonderful blog! Erma Bombeck was my hero also. With six kids in less than eight years, I didn’t have much time to read the paper. But I always found time to read Erma’s columns. Laughing with her was often what kept me sane. I would occasionally post a column on our refrig, and my kids would insist that I had written it and sent it to her! Thank you for reminding me to laugh today,! I plan to follow your blog.

Reply

Joan M. May 22, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Sr. Melanie,
Like Erma, your weekly columns bring joy to many. I’m sure that God created people like Erma to make our world a better place. Thanks for reminding us. Have a wonderful Day!

Reply

Mary Pace May 22, 2017 at 2:36 pm

I also found your blog site in my Living Faith booklet and want to thank you for your contributions to the booklet/devotional. I have enjoyed your writings over the years. Thank you for reminding me of how much I enjoyed Erma, may she rest in peace.;

Reply

Esther May 22, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Another good down to earth author is Robert Fulghum who is best remembered for his book. ‘

Reply

Esther May 22, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Another good down to earth author is Robert Fulghum who is best remembered for his book. ALL I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARDEN.

Reply

Anita May 22, 2017 at 8:45 pm

I needed a good laugh today and reading her quotes cracked me up sister. I didn’t know much about Erma but reading her column occasionally. She was truly a witty and remarkable lady. Thanks for another great blog sister Melannie!

Reply

Sr. Mary Therese May 22, 2017 at 8:51 pm

My mother enjoyed reading Erma’s columns and books. I ca still remember her laughing out loud. She really identified with Erma as Mom raised 9 children. Erma helped her a lot to keep her sense of humor.
Thanks for the sharing!

Reply

Janet Sloboda Garrison May 22, 2017 at 10:49 pm

Sister, I do face book and noticed that you and I have similar last names (Sloboda being my maiden name) I have all of Erma Bombeck books. I felt like she was always looking in my kitchen window. Thanks for the memories. We live in WV and attend Mass at St Anthony’s Catholic Church.

Reply

Margaret Buchanan May 23, 2017 at 8:10 am

Erma was a one of a kind. She was a good Christian, great person and fabulous humorous. Thanks for reminding us about this. My sister, Helen, sent this to me and introduced me to Erma many years ago.

Reply

LJ May 23, 2017 at 11:45 am

Oh Erma! How we could use her kind humor and wisdom each and every day! She is surely wearing a garland AND a crown. The song is a great addition, and I love how the kids are brought back to their true selves with the la-la-la-la-la’s…… sometimes we all need a little help that way. Thank you sister!

Reply

Karen May 23, 2017 at 6:36 pm

Erma was an American (and Ohio) original! I loved her column and before social media, her columns would be “posted” on real bulletin boards. I too think this is my favorite expression: When I stand before God at the end of my life, I hope I would not have a single talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

Reply

Shirley May 23, 2017 at 7:16 pm

Great story and loved the song!!

Reply

Vera May 23, 2017 at 8:44 pm

Back in that simpler time, Erma spoke to a generation of young mothers…I among them! Using her warmth and wit, she nonetheless addressed issues facing women head on…isolation, loneliness, the joys and sorrows that go with motherhood. She was brave, funny and real. She was a gift. Thank you, Sister Melannie for celebrating her life and legacy.

Reply

Chris May 24, 2017 at 11:02 am

Thanks for the memories Sister Melannie! My mother loved Erma and so did I. I didn’t know there is a play produced and performing with her work. I bet that it’s entertaining. I’d definitely attend if it comes near me.

God’s blessings, Chris

Reply

Tom May 24, 2017 at 5:23 pm

Thanks for the memories. I hope the play about Erma comes to town someday.
My sister, Debbie, shared Erma’s polycystic kidney disease and imitated Erma’s ability to bring joy to everyone she met rather than bemoan her fate.

Reply

JoAnn Welch May 27, 2017 at 9:30 pm

Thanks, Sr. Melannie…I love Erma Bombick!! All three of my children graduated from UD!! Thanks for sharing…I am going to get one of her books and have a good laugh…we all need it!!

Reply

Sandy Zabierowsky July 9, 2017 at 7:01 pm

I loved Erma Bromberg, I’m 74 years old and I still live by her comment on washing dishes. “When you wash the dishes no one bothers you.” This is my time to think about whatever I want. This is also a Great time to Pray !!!

Thank you Sr. Melania, I enjoy all your subjects that help us to open up and discuss.

Reply

Leave a Comment