Folks, I’m so excited! Every two years, Dayton University hosts a three-day writing workshop in honor of the late writer and humorist Erma Bombeck. The university has been hosting the event since 2000. The conference is always held in March, and ticket sales start at noon on the preceding December 1st. They sell out immediately.
So, on December 1st, I sat at my computer with my finger on the ‘enter’ button and pushed it at precisely noon and I… drumroll … wait for it … GOT A TICKET to the 2016 event!
Since I was a young girl, Erma Bombeck has greatly influenced my writing—and my life.
From the1960s through the 1990s, Bombeck wrote a newspaper column about suburban families. She also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. Far from the June Cleaver/Laurie Petrie depiction of an ideal home life, Bombeck wrote about the funny reality. “My second favorite household chore is ironing,” she once wrote. “My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”
During the late 1960’s, while Bombeck was launching her writing career, I was a young girl growing up in rural South Dakota. Most families in the area were poor, but mine lived far below the poverty line. My mother was a feisty, creative, mentally ill hoarder who could make astounding baked goods from scratch and could draw, paint, or sculpt darned near anything. She routinely neglected her children. My stepfather was a (usually) kind alcoholic with a 6th grade education. Laughs were few. If a classmate came to our home, my siblings and I were mortified.
Somehow Bombeck’s first book, At Wits End, made its way into our lives. Her hilarious views on domesticity gave my mother, my sister, and me laugh-out-loud breaks from our awful conditions. We actually took turns reading the book to each other. I remember Mom cracking up when I read Bombeck’s words aloud: “The other night he took me to dinner. We were having a wonderful time when he remarked, ‘You can certainly tell the wives from the sweethearts.’ I stopped licking the stream of butter dripping down my elbow and replied, ‘What kind of crack is that?’”
Looking back, I realize that the book not only made us laugh together, but also helped us feel normal. Our family was zany and ostracized by our small-town South Dakota colleagues, but we belonged to Bombeck’s group of devoted readers. As Bombeck herself wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
By the mid 70s, I had dropped out of high school. Meanwhile, my mother had discovered the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). Between that and work-study, she attained a bachelor’s degree. Erma Bombeck had become a household name across the country. With humor, she encouraged women to value themselves—their contributions to the family, their work, and their bodies. “Seize the moment,” she wrote. “Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”
In 1976, I joined the Air Force Reserves (I retired in 1998). Women were 2% of the Force then, and boot camp was tough. During a particularly rough patch at Lackland Air Force Base, my mom sent me a letter and scribbled on the envelope, “Don’t let Erma B. down, either.” I made it through, and a few weeks later I finished my GED.
In 1978, I married a great guy. I was 19 years old; my husband was 21. He also came from a wildly dysfunctional family (go figure). But he worked hard, was kind, gentle, and sober, and vowed to make life better for us—a promise he kept. During this same year, Bombeck was on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women, and was particularly involved in the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was strongly criticized for this by conservative ERA opponents, and some U.S. stores reacted by removing her books. My mother and I, however, continued to devour every word she wrote.
During the 1980s, the country re-embraced the genius that was Bombeck. She once again established her place as one of the funniest women on the planet and simultaneously made a small fortune. She sold her modest home in Ohio and moved to a lavish home in Arizona.
The 1980s brought great change for my mother and me as well. My husband and I had our first child, and I started college. I majored in Biology and Nursing, and dabbled in writing. For two semesters, I wrote a weekly column in the college newspaper. I tried to mimic Bombeck, and referenced her books often. I still remember my elation when a professor met me for the first time and said, “Oh! You’re Joan Potter! My wife and I always read your column in the school paper! You are so funny!”
In 1987, my mother graduated from law school. She was last in her class, but in her defense, on graduation day she had a couple of marriages under her belt, 5 children, and was 52 years old. My brothers and sister and I were very proud of her, even though we all had a sense that she would not be able to practice law full time. She had accomplished a great deal but it was evident that her demons were not behind her. My family was living an odd version of A Beautiful Mind, with my mom the dysfunctional genius.
In 1993, I received my master’s degree in anesthesia. My husband and our two sons (ages 3 & 10) met me as I walked across the stage. A year later, a great irony occurred: my husband went into end-stage kidney failure as a result of an autoimmune condition, and Erma Bombeck’s health began failing as a result of polycystic kidney disease. Bombeck received a kidney transplant in 1996, but died a few weeks later from surgical complications. I gave my husband a kidney in 1999. I knew just how risky the surgery would be for both of us. My nurses’ training had prepared me academically, but more personally, I’d experienced the loss of my great, feisty writing mentor due to the same operation.
The night before our transplant, my sister stayed at my house and I showed her where the wills and life insurance policies were kept. Early the next morning, she and my husband and I drove to the hospital and the atmosphere in the car was surprisingly light. Merry, actually. We cranked the radio up and everyone sang along to the old quirky song “Wooly Bully.” You’d have thought we were driving to a fraternity party. As Bombeck stated in what is probably her most famous quote, “Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage.”
My husband is still beside me, quite literally. His chin is on my shoulder and he is smiling as I type this.
My mother died three years ago. Sadly, she lived out her life in self-made squalor. She occasionally tried to get therapy, but did not receive the help she needed. She was able to function as an attorney from time to time, representing Native American tribes. She did a great job and provided a service to several groups of impoverished people.
As for myself, I have worked fulltime as a certified registered nurse anesthetist since 1993, but I never gave up my writing aspirations. Last August, I released my debut novel, Sweet Dreams. It’s a light-hearted romance that features a spunky nurse as the heroine, and a handsome nurse anesthetist as the hero. (Saw that coming, didn’t you?) It’s already received a lot of great reviews. I’m thanking two women for much of its success: My mom for demonstrating that we can be creative and accomplish great things well into our 50s, 60s, and 70s—even if we’re less than perfect. I credit Erma Bombeck for teaching me the power of a really good laugh.