“Ever since I read that Eva Braun, Judas Iscariot and Anne Boleyn shared my zodiac sign, I never could get too choked up about astrology,” wrote Erma Bombeck in one of my favorite columns.
“Other people got the good signs. Their horoscopes always read, ‘Popularity and untold wealth will haunt you. There is no getting away from it. You are irresistible to every sign in the zodiac. Give in and enjoy.’
“‘Not mine. It was always an ominous warning like ‘Watch your purse.’ ‘Your high school acne was only in remission, and will return the fifteenth of the month.’ ‘Don’t become discouraged by your friends who take advantage of you.'”
That dark, muttering, culturally savvy humor runs throughout Bombeck’s work, often flipping on itself to become inspiration. Many of her famous dispatches from the razor’s edge between cynicism and sentimentality are revisited by actress Barbara Chisholm in “At Wit’s End,” the new one-woman show about Erma Bombeck at Arena Stage in DC, running through 11/8.
“When your mother asks if you want some advice,” says Barbara-as-Erma, facing the audience in a print polyester shirtdress and low-heeled pumps, her brown eyes and cherry-red smile shining all the way to the back of the house, “it is only a formality.” She goes on to offer several of the columnist’s classic admonishments, including her perfect formulation of YOLO:
“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
As soon as I started publishing essays about being a mom and reading them on NPR’s All Things Considered — the closest contemporary equivalent to the audience Bombeck had with syndication in 900 papers — Erma Bombeck was the #1 point of reference for discussions of my work. According to the New York Times, “Take Erma Bombeck, add the obsessions of a single mother with two boys…and you have Marion Winik, as companionable a writer as a crazed parent ever found.” Elsewhere, I was the badass Erma, the boomer Erma, even the love child of Lou Reed and Erma Bombeck.
Was I pleased with these comparisons? No siree! I was hoping to be the love child of Sylvia Plath and William Faulkner, or at least Kurt Vonnegut and Mary McCarthy. I remembered Erma Bombeck from the black-and-white photo that ran with her column in the Asbury Park Press lying on my parents’ kitchen table. I thought of her as a middlebrow Midwestern jokester without literary significance.
But then, in a review of my third book, “The Lunch-Box Chronicles,” I got my beads read but good.
“If you, like me, haven’t read Bombeck lately (if ever),” wrote Jennifer Reese on Salon.com, “it will come as a surprise. Bombeck of the frosted hair and cheesy book titles (“Family: The Ties That Bind … and Gag!”) was sly, subversive and stunningly smart. She could find dramatic tension in the most humdrum household event; she could evoke the humor, loneliness, boredom and pleasure of parenthood in the course of a single sentence. Yes, Winik has written an easygoing, likable book. But where is the bite?
“Reading Bombeck in tandem with Winik points up what is missing from the latter. Winik is warm, appealing and personal; Bombeck was cool, universal and wickedly funny. For all her wild youth, Winik comes off as literal-minded, earnest and slightly square; Bombeck was always just a little badder than you’d expect. The issue in the end is not that Marion Winik is too edgy to wear Erma Bombeck’s crown. She isn’t edgy enough.”
This review was what finally made me go back and read Bombeck. And, you know, Jennifer Reese had a point.
This is the thing about negative reviews. Some of them are just mean. But some of them actually have something to tell you, if you can stop throwing the newspaper/magazine/iPhone across the room long enough to read them.
At the beginning of the play, Chisholm — a magnetic, appealing, down-to-earth presence on stage, she played Patricia Arquette’s best friend in the Oscar-winning “Boyhood” and the judge on “American Crime” — darts around an empty breakfast room, urging three imaginary children to stop feeding the dog, get those elbows off the table, and “What are you wearing now? Go up and change those clothes!” It’s a dramatic device, of course, but it reads as something more — a comment on how deeply internalized the tasks of mothering and domesticity are. We do them on autopilot. We might not even realize the kids aren’t there.
Erma Bombeck invented the mom-oir, writing from the hell of the vacuum cleaner and the horrors of the ironing board through the empty nest, the boomerang kids, and the mothering of one’s own aging mother. Her metaphor for this role reversal was the way you throw your arm out to protect the person in your passenger seat when you brake the car too quickly. First you do it for your daughter; later you do it for your mom; finally, unbelievably, your daughter is doing it for you. This is one of many moments when Chisholm’s performance deeply mines the poignancy in Bombeck’s writing. Another is the riff on how every mother has a favorite child. “She cannot help it,” explains Barbara-as-Erma.
“My favorite child is the one who was too sick to eat the ice cream at a birthday party, had measles at Christmas, wore leg braces to bed because his feet toed in.
“My favorite child screwed up the piano recital, misspelled ‘committee’ at the spelling bee, ran the wrong way with the football and had his bike stolen because he was careless.
“My favorite child said dumb things for which there are no excuses. She was selfish, immature, bad-tempered and self-centered. She was lonely, vulnerable, and unsure.
“The favorite child is always the same one. The one who needs you at the moment, whatever the reason.”
Few dry eyes in the house there.
You would think a woman who wrote the line “Housework is a treadmill from futility to oblivion with stop-offs at tedium and counter productivity” in the mid-1960s would have been thought of as one of the early feminists. Yet the original leaders of the movement saw Bombeck as a reactionary. “These housewife humorists who say we are all in this together are wrong,” wrote Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. “They revel in a comic world of eccentric washing machines and parents’ nights at the PTA. There is something about these women that reminds me of Uncle Tom and Amos and Andy.” This brutal diss is dramatized in the play when Erma hears Friedan speak at her public library.
Uncle Tom?!? Erma must have thought. Really? But apparently she too realized that there can be value in one’s negative press — because, as Allison and Margaret Engel’s script tells us, she changed her policy on staying out of politics and ended up on Jimmy Carter’s task force for women’s rights. She toured with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Friedan herself, stumping for the (never-passed) Equal Rights Amendment and weathering ferocious criticism from her more conservative readers.
Humor is an often underrated art, and yet it’s the one that gets us through our days, through our darkest hours as well as our simply dull ones. From 1965 to 1996, Erma Bombeck wrote over 4,000 columns. Her words were stuck on millions of refrigerators and made countless women feel better about their lives.
Here, in my 92nd Bohemian Rhapsody column —only 3,908 to catch up!— I bow to the queen and urge you to go see her show.
“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” Friday through Nov. 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC. Tickets are $55 to $90, subject to change based on availability, plus applicable handling fees. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org