I always greatly enjoyed the work, and the irresistible sense of humor, of the late Erma Bombeck, and was sad when she disappeared. She somehow managed to render the trite and tiresome moments of family and domestic life into visuals that had me in hysterics, and laughing so loud that people stared. She saw the humor in badly behaved household pets, outrageous children, errant husbands, and turned the too often banal role of mother and housewife into a work of inimitable satire. And I have to admit that often, even if not often enough I perceive my life in the same way.
Let’s face it, the same stuff happens to all of us. The car breaks down, the family dog, heretofore adorable, kills the neighbor’s cat (inevitably name ‘Fluffy’, no matter how old, bad tempered, or threadbare), our children total our cars (mine anyway), the plumbing backs up just before our mothers in law come to dinner (and you greet her with the plunger in your hand and a look of panic—and no, this is NOT a cooking utensil, Mother), and worst of all in some cases, our husbands leave us (usually for younger women). And even worse things happen that just don’t lend themselves to humor. But among the ordinary and the mundane, although troublesome at the time, afterwards, looking back at these events, sitting alone in our bedrooms late at night, we fall over laughing. At least I do. Sometimes it’s the only way I get by. By laughing, even when I want to cry. Sometimes I do both, at the same time. Erma totally ‘got’ that side of life. And my guess is you do too. I swear, it’s the only thing that keeps me going. Because even though life is tough at times, or tragic, a lot of the time it is just damn funny.
I guess I could troll back through my life, looking for funny events in my childhood. There must have been one or two, though I doubt it. My childhood wasn’t particularly funny. In fact, most of it was pretty sad. Looking back on it, I think the difficulties and loneliness I encountered as a child gave me three very valuable gifts: above all, it made me a good mother. I didn’t want my children to experience the same things I did, so I have spent a lifetime making sure that their childhoods would be happy, and different from mine. The second thing it did for me was give me a sense of humor. When all else fails, and life is falling apart all around you, what else can you do but laugh? I learned to laugh early, at the absurdity, and even the occasional cruelty, of life. And the third thing my childhood did for me was turn me into a writer. Once you observe it, and laugh about it—why not do something useful with it, and write about it? So I did, and have been writing ever since. (It is now 92 books later). So I am grateful for the gifts, all of them useful.
Beyond that, there is a vast span of years where, like everyone else, or many people, I got married and had babies. Then I got unmarried, remarried and had more babies. The usual stuff, although for my generation that was not entirely usual. I became an adult at a time when it was not politically correct to have children. In fact, it was considered downright irresponsible (to the planet) and tacky (to one’s peers). What can I tell you? I was sloppy. And tacky. Worse yet, I actually wanted to have kids. And I had a sick belief that one could not only have kids, but also a career. People looked at me like I was nuts when I said it, so I backed off apologetically, and wrote at night. For many, many years, I had a closet career, and thought it would go nowhere. And for a long time, it didn’t. In daylight hours, I was committed to my kids (and my husband while I had one), and wrote at night, when everyone was asleep. It worked, as we all know, and eventually I brought my career out into the light, much to everyone’s surprise. Before that, no one really believed me when I said I was writing. And I myself couldn’t believe that anyone would actually pay me to do anything I loved doing so much. My main focus, first love, and day job was my family. Writing was my passion.
Even then, when my typewriter and I came out of the closet, literally, people insisted you couldn’t have both: a career and kids. By then it was the 80’s. (And I had five more kids in those years to add to the four I already had. Yeah, I know, everyone said I was nuts. But I loved it. The kids were the best part).
My first ‘office’ (or writing closet) was the laundry room in our apartment in New York. It lacked dignity certainly, but it was the only peaceful place where I could hide at night. By day, it was a whirlwind. So my ancient typewriter and I transformed it into a writer’s lair at night. My second office was a broom closet in our San Francisco kitchen, just big enough for me, the typewriter, rolling table, and a chair. I had paid twenty dollars for the typewriter, a fabulous old German manual from the 1940’s, an Olympia I still use today and love. Best twenty dollars I ever spent! And I paid ten dollars each for the typing table and the chair, although I’ve replaced both since. The broom closet worked for quite a while. Again, I only needed it at night. By day, I was a full-time Mom, which eventually meant that my real office was my car. I spent most of the day driving to school, on different schedules, going to soccer games, the orthodontist, the pediatrician, and dropping and picking up at ballet. And at night, the broom closet was the home of my dreams. I guess it was in that broom closet that I became famous.huh? Who? What? Me? Yeah. Me..how did that happen? Damned if I know. By then I had spent years in the broom closet, and had unwittingly proven my early dreams. You can have both a family and career. I’d been sure of it, although admittedly I changed husbands in mid-stream, but continued to have kids. Eventually nine. Best thing I ever did!
And then the rat race began. Years and years and years of juggling kids and books, which meant car pools and drying tears, nursing skinned knees, lugging car seats in and out of my station wagon, while writing books in between. Make no mistake, I didn’t take my career lightly, I worked hard at what I did, and spent my nights pounding away on the Olympia.sometimes until the kids got up for school, leaving me with no sleep as I woke them up. I gave up other things to do it: reading for pleasure, magazines, lunches with friends, manicures (which weren’t as popular then, and were considered a luxury. Now, according to my daughters, they are a ‘necessity of life’. Not in my day. I’ve had short nails all my life: thanks to typing and kids). I gave up a lot, and mostly sleep, to give my family their due, and still manage to write the books, which much to my astonishment turned into a booming career. I became like the last ice skater in the chorus line at the ice follies, always racing at full speed to catch up while the crowd holds their breath, wondering if she will make it. I raced as hard as I could to do it all, sometimes managed to, and sometimes not. But I sure tried, and worked hard on both fronts.
I know there were a lot of funny moments back then, mostly provided by the kids (they say such great things. I wish I’d written them all down, but was always too busy writing Chapter 5, to keep a journal. Or re-writing Chapter 12, or finishing an outline). To be honest, those years are a blur. For the most part, a happy blur, but a blur. At the height of the craziness in my house, I had three teenagers, who were great kids, but up to the usual normal, healthy antics (that would be lying, drinking beer, breaking curfew, chasing girls, driving too fast, and taking my car without mentioning it to me. As one of my friends said back then, “Never lend your car to a person you gave birth to.” I found it an excellent rule of thumb, when they followed the rules, which sometimes they didn’t). But they were very good kids, and still are, even though now they’re grown ups (and I wish they weren’t, and were still at home and in school!). I also had a fourth child who was very sick for many years, and he required a lot of time, love, and attention. His illness took both wisdom and patience, and sometimes everything else had to fall by the wayside to tend to him, but he was worth it. And in addition to all that, I had five little ones, each a year apart. A twenty year range from top to bottom among my nine children. Not only did I break all the rules by having children and a career, but I had a lot of them, and went on having them for twenty years. Talk about blissful excess! I was never happier in my life.
Fearing that boredom would set in, I decided to add a few complications to my life. In case fame hadn’t done enough of that, (Me? Famous? So how come I’m still the one cleaning up after the dog? No one has ever been impressed by me at home. Probably a good thing.) I then contracted to write not only three books a year, but four TV movies a year, at exactly the same time my husband felt it imperative that we acquire a house the size of Yankee Stadium, that hadn’t been lived in for thirty years, and whose electricity and plumbing hadn’t been touched in sixty. No problem, Sweetheart, I’ll just race right over and restore it, which is what I did. So not only was I juggling kids and books, but suddenly I was editing screenplays for TV, and leaving frantic messages for the plumber at four o’clock in the morning. Kids and a career? Are you kidding? How about a job on the highwire in the circus, juggling three chairs, a grand piano, and a salami on my nose? Me? Busy? I know it must have been funny to watch, but who had time to notice? I’m not sure I ever had time to comb my hair except while sitting for the photographs on the back of my books. The rest of the time, I couldn’t even find my comb.
We moved into the new house (after we redid the electricity and the plumbing, and just about everything else), the kids continued to grow up and life went on. And then of course since this was real life and not a book (although I actually had an office by then, roughly the size of a small closet, which suits me just fine. I still work there today. By now, I have grown addicted to small spaces, and can’t write in big ones)—-but then, since I wasn’t writing the story, real life not only intruded, but it hit me like a bomb. I not only lost my son who had been sick for so long, after a valiant fight on his part and ours, but my husband decided to move on. Nicely put. It makes him sound like the Good Humor truck.or a country western song.moooovvving on. At the time one event was tragic, and the other did not strike me as particularly funny. It took me a long time to recover after both.
Fast forward the movie to six years later, which is now, and I am suddenly faced with situations that are at last worthy of Erma Bombeck. My older kids have grown up, two are married. And of the five younger ones, four are in college (that’s the other end of having a lot of kids year after year—you get to pay four college tuitions all at once. Who can afford manicures with all that? My nails are still short. I’m waiting til I hit the senior’s center to get my nails done. Maybe then I’ll have time). I have four kids in college, one teen-ager at home, and no husband. I have one dog of my own, and at various times baby-sit six of theirs. No grand-children yet. (How would I fit that in?) So now I am a single mother of this army of kids who look like grown ups, but in fact aren’t. Their plots to rob me of my sanity have grown more creative. I worry about them more. The risks they face are bigger. And I not only worry about who they date, I worry about my not having a husband. Who will keep me company when I get old? What will happen if I get sick? I realized with some embarrassment a few years ago, that my children are so well adjusted that they are not dependent on me.but (gulp), I am dependent on them. I discovered this during a trip to Paris I bravely took, before I was to join them traveling in Europe. It wasn’t romantic or fun or exciting or liberating, I was miserable, and whined to them constantly on the phone before they arrived..when are you coming? Oh Erma, where were you then? It was a major revelation at the time, which has only come into sharper focus since then. My kids are all but gone, my house is empty save one very well behaved child (at 17, she is no child, but I feel better if I call her that), and I was so busy taking care of them, writing, and being a Mom, that I forgot to find another husband. Nah, okay, let’s be really honest, in deference to Erma, that husband forgot to find me.
I always thought that I would spend the years after the children left, traveling with my husband and fussing over him. No such luck, it happens to a lot of women, but happened to me too. He left before we could get there. Now the kids are gone, except for the last one, and no one needs or wants me to fuss over them, not even she, as she is fiercely independent. No one to talk to at night, (I write instead), no one to travel with. All my friends are married.wow, guys, this isn’t as easy as it looks. One minute the house is so full, people are falling off the rafters. The next you’re sitting here alone, wondering what the hell happened, and where they all went. As another friend said (my mantra now) ‘That was then, this is now’. I’m not so sure I like this. In fact, I know I don’t. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t plan for it. I opted for family AND career. But in the end, no matter which box you checked off on the forms, or how good a job you did, the kids grow up. You get to keep the career, but not the kids. How did I forget that? But in all honesty, I did.
There are of course life’s classic comic moments. Dating. Blind dates. Very blind dates. Unbelievably awful blind dates, and even some nice ones. Relationships that come and go. The men I should be dating at my age are actually going out with women my daughters’ ages. Oops. I wasn’t counting on that either. There is a rumor out there somewhere, hard as it is to believe (I’m not 90 after all), I could be obsolete. Damn. How did that happen? Damned if I know. It must have happened while I was out, probably driving car pool. They forgot to leave me a note. Just as the kids forgot to leave me notes when men called.and then a year later would say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember him, he called you a couple of times, I think I forgot to tell you.’ Damn right you did. I guess that’s why I never heard from him again. Then of course there was the very nice blind date I had, while the kids were all still at home. I was trying to be very cool, and assured him that having so many children was really no problem, mine were so well behaved they never got out of control. The words were barely out of my mouth when my cell phone rang, my then fourteen year old son had been watching an air show from our roof with five friends, when one of them leapt Superman-style through the sky light and was hanging there, while 12 firemen were attempting to remove him (eventually, luckily with no great harm done, other than that I nearly had a heart attack when I heard about it). The date was extremely nice about it, though I never heard from him again. I recently learned that he has a 29 year old girlfriend though he is more than twice her age. See what I mean? It’s not easy to suddenly be on the market as an ‘adult’. The hard part for me is that I am simultaneously out of the job I love the best: full time Mom, and minus a husband. Oops again. I loved my career, and still do, but it doesn’t throw its arms around my neck and hug me, and I can’t tuck it in at night. It is a huge, huge adjustment to see one’s kids grow up and move on, particularly if one is no longer married. The words ’empty nest’ don’t even begin to touch it, except for those of us who know.
The comic moments continue of course. The kids now tell me everything I do and say wrong on a date.Noooo.Mommm!…Don’t say that.you can’t tell a guy…(there are a lot of things you apparently can’t tell a guy. My kids know all of them. Apparently I know none, and say them all. Witness the fact that I’m still single.) Recently, I was invited away on a weekend by a man I had known for years and was beginning to date. “Now”, my 22 year old daughter explained sternly, sitting me down when I mentioned it to her (with butterflies in my stomach. I don’t have the hang of this dating thing yet, after being married all my life, since I was 17.) “You can’t sleep with him, Mom. You know that, right?” “I can’t?” I said wanly. I wasn’t planning to immediately, but it would have been nice to know I had the option, just on the off chance that he was the last guy on the planet who ever intended to ask me out. “You can’t sleep with him for at least two months. Three would be better. But two is absolutely minimum standard.” Damn. Two months? At my age? What if neither of us live that long? What about the third or fourth date? How did I manage to raise children who are even more moral and conservative than I am? I ask you, is this fair? Hell, no. Now I have to feel guilty toward my kids if I am lucky enough to get laid. And would have to lie about it. Who’s running this show anyway? Maybe they are. “Okay, okay,” I said, hanging my head, already guilty even before the opportunity presented itself. “Promise?” She asked, looking me in the eye, and how can you lie to your own daughter? “Promise,” I said through clenched teeth, “I hate you,” Just exactly what she would’ve said to me twenty years before when she was 2. As the tables turn, not the world.
So here we are, I’m a grown up. I have a good life, a great career, a family I cherish, husbands whom I once loved and still do in my own way, they shared much with me, and life turns out the way it’s meant to. I have learned hard lessons, had great times. I have wonderful friends. I still laugh out loud at the many absurd things I see. And if all goes well, my children will continue to teach me the dating rules, and maybe one of these days someone will happen along whom I would like to share my life with. Maybe yes. Maybe no. We’ll see. I have been blessed in any case. I like the choices I made. I checked off both boxes. Family AND career, and had a terrific time at both. What more could I ask? My one wish would be to turn the clock back and start all over again, and enjoy all those years with the kids one more time. Would that it could be. But I’m getting used to this end of life too, although it’s a little tame for me. The silence in the house is tough at times, but kids grow up, and like it or not, we have to let go, hard as that can be.
Have I laughed enough? I’m not sure. At times I have, at others there have been some deep reflective moments, some disappointments, some regrets, some tears. But on the whole, I think I’ve laughed a fair amount, usually unexpectedly. Sometimes, I have looked at the absurdities of life around me, and laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks and my sides ached. The best part is that the laughter is always a gift, suddenly you see something you can’t resist, and you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Just the way Ms. Bombeck would have described it to us. I think of her often when I laugh right out loud at the utter silliness of life sometimes. And when I do, I’m grateful all over again for the many gifts I have, and the ability to laugh at the things that don’t seem quite right to me. Laughing at them not only makes them tolerable, but yet another gift.
I hope that now and then, if your days are hard, or you don’t like what’s happening to you, that you take a good look, a deep breath, see something silly, and laugh until you cry..It’ll do you good, and put a spring back in your step. Erma had the right idea. Just a little giggle at first, and then a great big belly laugh..come on, you can do it. If I can, you can..There is nothing better than laughing at the absurd. And in the end, life is absurd. It’s the only way to view it. And just like life itself, the laughter is oh so sweet. Like candy for the soul.