We were in Dayton, Ohio to address the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers’ Conference at the University of Dayton, and I was to give the closing evening keynote speech. As a columnist, and a fan, it was a thrill to be associated with the late, great Mother of All Columnists in her hometown.
When we were booked to speak, I didn’t know that I would have the pleasure of sitting with Erma Bombeck’s family–her lovely husband Bill and their three grown children Andy, Matt and Betsy–the loved ones who inspired all of her wonderful columns and books. I felt like I knew them already. And they were just as nice as I could have imagined.
Bill is a robust gent, kind with smiling eyes. He and two of his children had all worn red shirts. When the third arrived at the table in a blue shirt, Bill joked, “Didn’t you get the memo?”
I was a little nervous about speaking to 350 humor writers and even more so with the family of a humor writer I idolize sitting a few feet away. The same kind of “nervous” the passengers on the Poseidon feel watching the tidal wave approach. I asked Bill if his wife, who lectured widely and appeared twice a week on Good Morning America for years, was always an accomplished speaker or if she ever got the jitters.
He thought back and told me she probably had a bout or two of nervousness when she started out but that she got pretty good at it. He said she had a couple of speaking engagements under her belt when he saw her “perform” for the first time. “It was a huge hall, thousands of people there,” he recalled. “Erma came out and started reading. She was terrific. I thought, ‘This is my wife?’”
My husband, the Emmy-award winning comedian, spoke first. He told funny anecdotes about his misadventures in television (“I once wrote for a terrible show on MTV called You Wrote It, You Watch It. They got it half right–I wrote it, but nobody watched it.”) He was his usual brilliant self and got us all laughing. I’ve watched Dave on stage for almost 20 years. This would be the first time I ever appeared on stage with him (aside from our wedding). Bill told me that he appeared once with his wife. Erma worked out some dialogue for them. Bill flubbed his line and Erma went back to doing a solo.
I told Bill about my favorite Erma column. The family was sitting down to breakfast and he looked around the table and noticed that there was one more kid than there should have been, but he wasn’t quite sure who was whom. It turned out to be a neighbor boy who came over for breakfast lunch and dinner and was always there.
Bill laughed. He knew exactly what I was talking about. That kid’s name was Steve so and so, he told me. He was always hanging around their house when Andy, Matt, and Betsy were teenagers. Everyone would go to bed and Bill would look up from watching the news and this kid would still be sitting on the couch.
Is he still there? I asked.
No, he moved on, Bill said fondly. Has a family.
Did it bug you, having this kid over all the time? “Nope,” Bill said. “I felt bad for the boy’s parents. They never saw him.”
I imagined that if I had a teenage son and he wanted to hang out at the Bombeck’s house, I’d have no problem with that. I’d know exactly where he was–with America’s favorite mom.
She must have been a great mom because her kids turned out to be really nice people. They smiled up at me throughout my speech as I rambled my way through and made me feel comfortable. They even chuckled a few times.
The next morning, in the hotel lobby, the three Bombeck siblings were talking and laughing with each other, in no hurry to leave Dayton though the conference was over. You could tell they are close and enjoy spending time together in this small city where their mom started a family and raised her kids and wrote about them and made us all smile.
Erma Bombeck: A Legacy of Laughter, a new documentary about the beloved humorist, produced by Ohio’s ThinkTV, will air on public-television stations across the country over Mother’s Day weekend.
— Susan Konig, a journalist, is author of Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (And Other Lies I Tell My Children).