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Erma Bombeck: Laughing Through the Pain

By Allia Zobel Nolan

Most people have a hero. Someone they admire. Mine was Erma Bombeck. She did more for the American housewife than any other woman. She validated her and gave her a voice. For starters, she admitted she was one. Then she went on to build a career around writing about what it was like.

Bombeck was to housewives what Spock was to babies. We grew up reading her. Her material came from her own experiences. She held up a mirror to her life, burst out laughing, then sat down and chronicled it for millions to enjoy.

And boy, did we ever. We devoured each word of her columns, then excised them neatly with coupon cutters to pass along to a friend or hang prominently on the refrigerator door, under the cow magnet.

That’s because Bombeck was “Everywoman.” We were her; she was us. When she wrote about her adventures in “ma-ma” land, we roared, because they were our adventures. We could relate to dust bunnies under the bed so thick they clogged the Hoovers. We had served not-quite-defrosted white bread and Spaghetti-O’s (with ketchup) for dinner (on occasion). And we could recognize what a sardine sandwich smelled like after a month in a jeans' back pocket. We could identify with tile fungus. We knew husbands who snored. We had experience with neighbor’s dogs who pooped in our yards.

Indeed, Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping gave us the ideal. But Bombeck gave us the truth. She was the first woman to hint that being a housewife might/just/could/possibly not be all it’s cracked up to be. Still, because she wrote about it with such hilarity and absence of malice, it was okay. So what if it were more fake geraniums than long-stemmed roses; more Barney Goes to the Zoo than Martha Stewart moments? Every profession had its ups and downs. Truth is, the inanities of being a housewife were, for Bombeck, what made it such a hoot.

Bombeck was first to go public with the idea that housewives didn’t have to be perfect. She dispelled the myth of “the total woman” as just that: a fairytale perpetrated by the same folks who brought us girdles and The Stepford Wives. And if you burnt the roast or hemmed your husband’s pants with a stapler, you weren’t odd. You were normal.

Bombeck made it okay not to look like a Barbie doll, cook like The Galloping Gourmet and keep house like Mr. Clean. In fact, if you managed to change the beds and shave your legs once a month, you were doing just fine. Indeed, and if you didn’t have a religious experience when you diapered the baby, you weren’t strange. She never said you had to love putting down toilet seats and cleaning chrome fixtures with a toothbrush, just that since you were going to do it anyway, why not have fun with it? She certainly did.

(If she were alive today, there’s no doubt she’d be in the heat of the “Me, too,” movement. I picture her sitting at her computer, donning a pink pussycat hat, fingers flying across the keys as she questioned women: “What took you so long?”)

Bombeck not only raised the status of women as housewives and moms, she also put “women’s humor” on the map. With her successes, (syndication in over 900 papers and 12 books, nine of which made The New York Times Bestseller List), she legitimized women’s humor as relevant commentary, no longer relegated to an occasional essay on the back page. Not surprisingly, she paved the way for zillions of Bombeck wanna-bes to be taken seriously.

What makes Bombeck even more remarkable is she did this under enormous hardship. She suffered kidney disease, which eventually led to a three-times-a-day dialysis. On top of that, she developed breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy.

Through it all, she kept her spirits up and her writing jovial. “(So) I wrote all these books with a kidney problem,” she told an interviewer once. “That doesn’t affect your brain. It doesn’t affect your sense of humor.”

Thank goodness for us. Still, Bombeck was never the type to complain. She preferred to count her blessings, not her ills. When something bad came her way, she smoothed down her apron, and did what any good housewife would do: got on with things. But then, what else would you expect from someone who listed her hobby as “dust?”

Golly, I miss her.

— Allia Zobel Nolan

Allia Zobel Nolan is the author of the newly published children's book, God Made Us Just Right, a reprise of Why a Cat Is Still Better Than a Man as well as the second edition of The Worrywart's Prayer Book. She is an internationally published author of over 150 traditionally published children's and adult trade titles. Her books reflect her two main passions, God and cats, and include such varied titles as Cat Confessions: A Kitty Come Clean Tell All Book, Whatever Is Lovely: a 90-Day Devotional and Journal; and What I Like About You: A Book About Acceptance. She shares her life with her husband, Desmond, and their two feline children, Nolan Nolan and Colleen Fiona Shannon Nolan. In 2018, she collaborated with the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop on the humor anthology, Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now Before We Forget. This piece originally appeared in that book.

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