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Erma and me

Times and themes change. Families change. Children grow up and away. The ultimate change, or transition, is death.

Yet the ability to pen life’s facts and fantasies with a measure of humor keeps the spirit alive and well during these phases.

Being able to share the foibles of motherhood and raising a family adds a bit of perspective to what could be constantly chaotic.

Columnist Erma Bombeck had a special talent for chronicling the ups and downs of family life.

Over the years friends and family have sent me clippings of Erma Bombeck’s work, knowing I appreciated her unique brand of humor.

Family and friends sometimes compared my work to Erma’s. The best kind of compliment!

In reading the introduction to one of Erma’s books I was amazed to learn that we shared the same birth date. I just had to write her.

She thanked me for my letter, saying how pleased she was with my success. (I don’t remember what success I’d had at this point.)

She went on to say, “It isn’t the money. It isn’t even your name underneath the story. It’s a special feeling that your words are reaching people you don’t even know.”

She asked me to keep her posted on my successes.

She always answered my letters. Unlike some writers, she answered her own mail. Her stationery was unique with its bedraggled hausfrau holding an even more bedraggled house plant.

I sent her a letter in 1981 for Valentine’s Day.

In her reply she wrote, “Since you have such a great sense of humor, try to imagine this pot is filled with $60-a-dozen roses. I knew it wouldn’t work.”

Times and scenes change. Somewhere along the line Erma moved from Ohio to Arizona. She returned to Ohio in 1981 to appear on a popular Cleveland daytime talk show.

Knowing I was enamored with this neat lady, my brother got tickets to the program. I wrote a column about the event, met her, handed her a note and some clippings before leaving.

She answered the note saying, “It was nice meeting the face behind Norma’s Nook (the column I did for a newspaper in Ohio). Sounds like you are having a wonderful time writing it and that’s what it’s all about.”

I believe Erma realized the magnitude of her position in the limelight, and she seemed to take special care to encourage me.

“I do believe that you are limited only by your talents, and they will take you as far as the traffic can bear. I look back on 30 years of trying, of failing, of going one step forward and two back, and throwing myself at the mercy of readers. There are no shortcuts or easy answers. You just have to take advantage of any situation and pray a lot,” she wrote.

And she protected herself as well as the writer.

“In case you’re wondering why I have never commented on any of your pieces, it’s because I have a hard, fast rule for years not to read other people’s material.”

This was to protect both herself and the writer. She didn’t want to take the chance that one day she’d come up with a story, coming from her subconscious and forget it was by another writer, maybe even Norma Sundberg.

A constant theme that ran through all the letters was, “Keep on keeping on as long as you enjoy what you’re doing.”

I enjoyed homemaking and raising children for a lot of years — 40 to be exact. But there came a day when it wasn’t fun anymore — and it was becoming dangerous to stay in my marriage — so my youngest daughter and I ran away from home, coming to live with my daughter and her family in Florida.

A few years ago Erma did a serious commentary on Earth Day on “Good Morning America.” I wrote to tell her how much I enjoyed it, commenting that sometimes her serious pieces were better than the humorous ones.

She thanked me for letting the house and lunch wait while I sat down to tell her about the Earth Day piece. She went on, “Every day I thank God for women like you.”

She was delighted I hadn’t succumbed to rejection or disappointment. Again, “Just keep doing what you’re doing — as long as you’re having a good time doing it.”

And I put off writing again until it was too late. Yet even to the end of her fight with a kidney disease she merely “slowed down a bit,” as Ellen Goodman wrote. She kept on doing what she loved. It kept her going.

Times and scenes change. I’ve moved once more, from Tallahassee to Crawfordville. I learned that Erma had been living in Northern California when she passed away.

Erma Bombeck died on Earth Day. It was also my grandson’s 10 birthday.

I suspect she’s charming everyone in heaven.

She was a role model for stay-at-home moms, for career women, for the kind of friendship we all yearn for. The words echo from many of those I talk to, “We will really miss that column.” We will miss what Erma Bombeck did best. Made us laugh — at ourselves.

— Norma J. Sundberg

Norma J. Sundberg has been writing on and off for nearly 60 years. Her writings include a weekly column, “Nidbits from Norma’s Nook,” in The Free Enterprise in Ohio for 10 years and articles and poems in an online newsletter, “Extra Innings,” sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. Her poetry and articles also have appeared in a wide range of other publications, including Writer’s Journal, Christian Science Monitor, the Tallahassee Democrat and literary magazines. Over the years, she received 11 letters from Erma Bombeck.

Reflections of Erma