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Erma Bombeck and Me

By Celeste King Conner

(The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop is running a Flyer Funder crowdfunding campaign until Dec. 1, 2022, to boost the endowment for the DC Stanfa Memorial Writers' Award. Celeste Conner King is one of the inaugural recipients.)

In early 1980s, when I was in high school, probably junior year, Santa Claus brought me a boxed set of Erma Bombeck books in paperback. Santa was not happy with what I had been reading, so he nudged me toward something redeeming. Mama and I used to read Erma’s syndicated column from the Dothan Eagle out loud to each other at the kitchen table. Erma was a parent, and I was a kid, but I thought she was so funny. I read the paperbacks repeatedly and to pieces.

I remember the story about the hard dinner roll and her surmising that airlines reused the same rolls over and over (because meals used to be served in airplanes, my young ones), and to prove her theory, she claimed she carved her initials into a roll, passed it back to the stewardess— and got served the same one on the return flight.

I remember she wrote about playing dolls as a little girl, and that she put the daddy under her bed, and he “went to work.” She didn’t know what that meant, so she just left him under there until the end of the pretend day, when he hollered, “I’m home!” And then one day, her real daddy went to work and didn’t come home again. That happened to me, too. That was one reason Santa was concerned about my reading material. Santa was hyper-concerned about everything about me in those days.

I grew up and found Facebook and started writing my own funny family tales. The editorial page editor from the Dothan Eagle invited me to write from time to time. I winked to my memory of Erma Bombeck.

About a decade ago, I stumbled online over the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop (EBWW) at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. I determined to find my way there and to my people. But mamas don’t often find the way to pay for what they want just because they want it. Everything else comes first. Mamas wait their turn.

Early in 2022, I learned that DC Stanfa, a beloved member of the EBWW family, died suddenly, and in her name, her family endowed scholarships to the next workshop.

Short story — I applied and won one.

Precisely, I won registration to the conference, plus meals, plus airfare, plus transportation to and from airport, plus four nights at the Marriott on the concierge floor.

Actually, I won encouragement and reassurance and confidence, plus a big ole boost of cheer.

I promise, it was cheer in the salty water that pooled in my eyes for most of the long October weekend. In memorializing a loved one, a grieved family honored me. What right did I have to be there instead of her?! Not a smidge. But that’s human nature at its best, isn’t it? In the ugly, we pass on the beauty to the undeserving.

During one of the sessions called “Fear Not the Blank Page,” my eyes seeped the entire hour. Afterwards, I spoke to the facilitator. “I had therapy in your class this morning.”

She said, “I saw you. I wanted to know you were OK.”

“Yeah. OK. Overwhelmed. The blank page is about the only thing I don’t fear.”

Oh! And strangers. I love strangers.

Before opening dinner on Thursday night, a frightened woman huddled near me and confided that she’d been in her hotel room all afternoon summoning the courage to come down and meet fellow writers, assembled from 37 states and a couple of foreign countries. She said a room of 300 people she didn’t know was outside her comfort zone. She asked if I was afraid, too. “Hardly,” I giggled. “A room of 300 strangers is one of my favorite things!” She told me I was brave. Not in this circumstance. I was fueled by the thing that frightened her. We didn’t have another conversation, but I spotted her a time or two, flitting with new friends.

On Saturday night, I sat at the table with other scholarship winners and the family of DC Stanfa. Her daughter is about the same age as my daughters. I told her thank you for the gift of the conference. I whispered to her that I’d lost a parent too young, too. I told her I was tender to her heartache. I wish I had thought to tell her that so was Erma.

Tremendous content was presented at the 2022 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, most of it summed up in, “You can write!” (encouragement given to Erma by a college professor). I heard a lot of the info, but a lot of it got wiped away in my snotty tissues. My take-home lessons were universal — new friends, kindness, community and laughter. So much laughter.

Thanks, Erma.

— Celeste King Conner

Celeste King Conner’s writing appears occasionally in the Dothan Eagle and Opelika-Auburn News, when she’s got a good story to tell. She's an inaugural recipient of the DC Stanfa Memorial Writers' Award.

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