Head of the house of absurdity

April 25, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It was 1970 and I was a 20-something reporter in a rented car looking for a hill in Bellbrook, Ohio. My editor had sent me out to interview Erma Bombeck, this housewife-humorist, this anti-Heloise, this funny lady of the home pages.

The 40-something Ms. Bombeck had given me these directions: You head for Ohio and turn left. You take another left at the traffic light. You go down the road until you come to mailbox 3875 only the 7 is missing. Then go to the top of the hill.

A New Englander looking for a hill in Ohio, I passed the RFD mailbox three times before I figured it out, and turned up the five-degree incline to the rambling white farmhouse. There at the top -- the top? -- was a pond with large ducks and two dogs named Kate and Harry.

The first words

These were the first words that Erma Bombeck said to me:

''Come in, come in. Harry, you stay out there, you've got bad breath. Please don't look at the mess, they're tearing apart the kitchen and there's this brown dust that settles every day all over the house. You must be hungry but the hamburger is absolutely refusing to defrost. Take your coat off.''

It was vintage Erma Bombeck, the same in person and in print. She was the mistress of controlled chaos, the head of the house of absurdity. She was a warm and generous woman whose body gave out Monday -- so much sooner than her spirit.

On that distant March day, over bologna sandwiches and Bugles, over coffee from a percolator that sounded like John Henry's sledgehammer, she talked about mothering and loneliness, about deadline humor and deadly seriousness.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, and some reporter had asked how she was going to observe the day of protest. ''I told them I had three weeks of laundry I was going to do.'' Now she worried, ''Am I just sitting here writing a funny column while Rome burns?''

It was the beginning, too, of the women's movement and she said, ''I had a member of the Women's Liberation Movement write to me and say, 'Lady, you are the problem.' ''

After the revolution

Erma Bombeck, the problem? I wonder now if that young feminist thought that after the revolution, washing machines would stop eating socks as a gesture of solidarity? Or husbands would stop watching football?

Erma Fiste, the daughter of a teen-age mother, was a reporter in the 1950s when newspaper women were few and far between. Later she would write that as a young mother at home in suburbia with three children, ''I hid my dreams in the back of my mind -- it was the only safe place in the house. From time to time I would get them out and play with them, not daring to reveal them to anyone else because they were fragile and might get broken.''

She began to work again from home in 1964, just one year after Betty Friedan's book was criticized as the ranting of a neurotic and probably frigid woman. Ms. Bombeck's column was pegged -- or dismissed -- as ''housewife humor.'' But it was, in its own way, wonderfully, deliciously subversive.

Vacuuming in heels

When she started, suburban housewives were still pictured vacuuming in high heels in immaculate homes with perfect children. Erma Bombeck cracked open the feminine mystique her own way: with a side-splitting laugh.

Her crack was a thousand wisecracks. Over the years, she wrote the truth about domestic life in all its madness and frustration, its car pools and appliances.

She wrote with the uncanny accuracy of a fellow traveler and a born reporter. She wrote to and about women who were, in the name of her column, ''At Wit's End.''

This mother never signed on to the infamous mommy wars that pitted women at home against those in the workplace. How could she? She had done it all and so she wrote for us all.

In the late 1970s, she went on the road to sell the Equal Rights Amendment in tandem with the redoubtable Liz Carpenter. ''We did the razorback hog call in Arkansas. We sang Baptist hymns in a mobile home cruising through Iowa,'' she reminisced, ''And Liz auctioned off my husband's underwear in Phoenix.''

Not a laugh riot

Later, this woman turned her heart and pen to children with cancer. She also shared those parts of her life that were not a laugh riot: her experience with infertility, her miscarriage, her breast cancer, the last fatal deterioration of her kidneys.

And whenever ''family values'' returned with grim seriousness, Erma Bombeck, wife of one, mother of three, was around to remind us about ''Family, the Ties That Bind . . . and Gag.''

A lot of columnists write words to end up in the Congressional Record, or on the President's desk or at the Pulitzer Committee's door. Erma Bombeck went us all one better. Her words won her the permanent place of honor in American life: the refrigerator door. Now we are again at wit's end.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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