Remembering Erma

updated 04/28/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1997 01:00AM

SHE HAD A MISCHIEVOUS SMILE, AND AN exuberance of spirit, that made her death seem somehow impossible. And when complications following a kidney transplant claimed the life of Erma Bombeck a year ago this week, it wasn't just her legion of fans who were unprepared. "Erma and I were both in denial about how seriously ill she was," says her husband, Bill, who took notes throughout the 69-year-old humorist's hospitalization, figuring even that ordeal would be grist for her mill. In the days before she died, he would wake up at the apartment he had rented in San Francisco, where Erma had her surgery, "and think, 'Things will be better today,' " he says. "And every day they got worse. I feel like I never want to go back to San Francisco."

Today, Bill Bombeck, 70, who had managed his wife's career since retiring as a school administrator in 1978, lives alone in the sprawling, antique-filled Paradise Valley, Ariz., home the couple shared. Little has changed there since last April 22: In Erma's airy office overlooking the McDowell Mountains, a manila folder marked "Col. ideas" remains on a credenza. "She was always looking for ideas," says Bombeck (who provided her with plenty during their 46 years of marriage). Atop her carved pine desk sits the IBM Selectric she used to craft her thrice-weekly syndicated columns. ("I tried to write on a computer for a while, but it didn't write funny," she once said. "Maybe you have to pay more.") There is an invitation to the Passover seder of her longtime friend and assistant Norma Born, which Erma didn't live to attend, and a calendar for April '96 dotted with scrawled notations. "It almost brings tears to my eyes when I see that," Bombeck says. "I told Norma the other day, 'If she's up there where we think she is, she's probably telling both of us, 'Get a life.' "

Not that grieving has been his only occupation. Last summer, Born and Bombeck helped gather a selection of his wife's columns—which were being syndicated in 600 newspapers by the time she died—for a book called Forever, Erma, which became a bestseller. (Proceeds will go to her favorite charities.) Thousands of fans have written to express their sorrow, and Norma and Bill—in keeping with Erma's custom—have answered nearly every one. ("This lady got tons of masses said in her name," Bombeck confides. "If she's not in heaven now, I don't know why") In addition, Bill is the spokesman for the Arizona Kidney Foundation's new Erma Bombeck Organ Donor Awareness Project, a program intended to increase organ donations.

Recently, Bombeck's days have been brightened by the arrival of his first grandchild, Eva Louise, who was born on Jan. 6 to Matthew, 38, the youngest of the three Bombeck children, and his wife, Jackie. The couple had been hoping to conceive—cheered on by Erma, who longed for a baby in the family and had given up needling daughter Betsy, now 43, an operations manager at a Scottsdale boutique, and son Andy, 42, a fourth-grade teacher in Paradise Valley, who are both single. Jackie, whose own mother died in 1993, learned she was pregnant shortly after Erma's funeral. "We always say our moms made it happen," says Matt, a freelance TV writer who lives in L.A.

Given the strength of Erma's personality—and the rich memories she inspired—she could very well make things happen after her death. To mark the first anniversary of her passing, Bombeck's family and friends agreed to share their thoughts with PEOPLE. "She's not here," says Bill, glancing at the photo of Erma on his dining room sideboard. "So she can't interrupt."

"I've adjusted in the past year, but losing this child is the worst thing I've ever been asked to do," says Bombeck's mother, Erma Harris, 86. "I talk to her a lot. I'm not letting her go, that's all—I just can't."

For Harris, who lives in Sun City, Ariz., the loss is not just of her only daughter but of a nearly lifelong friend. The wife of a Dayton crane operator 16 years her senior, Harris was 16 when little Erma was born. "We played dolls together," she recalls. "I had her very young but I never regretted it." A bright student at Wilbur Wright elementary school in her blue-collar neighborhood, Erma was also "a good dancer and a good blues singer," Harris says. "When she was 3 or 4, I took her to WSMK radio in Dayton to sing. I wanted her to be like Shirley Temple—that was my dream, it was never hers."

Erma's dream, as far back as Harris can remember, was to be a writer, and she always had the wit that would help make it happen. "Her classmates thought she was funny," says Harris. "When she walked into a room, they expected something out of her." Devastated by her father's death when she was 9 (he died of a stroke at 42), she withdrew for a time and lost weight. But by 1938 she had a new stepdad, a feed-store clerk named Tom Harris ("Oh, she hated him at first, but they got very close," says Harris of Tom, who died in 1990), and was recovering her equilibrium. At Emerson Jr. High, Erma helped start a paper, the Emerson Owl, and in high school she worked as a copy clerk at the Dayton Herald (which later became the Journal Herald). It was there that the young lady who ex-classmate Ted Levitt describes as "funny and a bit funny looking too" met—and fell hard for—fellow copy clerk Bill Bombeck.

"She had a crush on Bill from the minute she met him," remembers childhood friend Helen Carlson. After Bombeck was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea in 1945, he and Erma, who was a freshman at Ohio University, traded letters. The course of their romance did not always run smooth. "Oh, Bill doesn't love me yet, he only likes me," Erma wrote her friend Dorothy Jacobs. And later: "Bill was home, but I didn't hear from him until Sunday.... Men are stinkers! Stinkers first class! But gosh, aren't they nice to have around."

Bill was around again in 1947, when he mustered out of the Army and enrolled at the University of Dayton. He and Erma were married in 1949, and he taught high school history while she polished her writing skills on obits and features at the Journal Herald. In 1953 she quit to stay home outside Dayton with Betsy, whom the couple adopted after Erma failed to get pregnant. (She gave birth to Andrew in 1955; Matthew came along three years later.)

Even before she took up writing again, says her college friend Shirley Fleischman, Erma was tossing off the wry domestic asides that would make her famous: "She'd say, 'Why clean your oven all the time—as long as you can still get a cupcake in there without touching the sides, you're in good shape.' " Notes her son Andy: "I think her sense of humor was her salvation. These women in the suburbs were going crazy."

In 1965—with Matthew, her last child, in school—Erma began writing a column, At Wit's End, about homelife in suburbia, for the Dayton Journal Herald. Within a year the column was in syndication across the country. Her neighbor in Centerville, Ohio, at the time, one Phil Donahue, believes her musings about lost socks and whining kids struck a chord because "she spoke honestly about the routine of family life, and she did it as no other person on Earth." It wasn't only stay-at-home moms who could relate. By the 1970s, when her popularity skyrocketed with the publication of books like The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, "we were all facing so much guilt," says Dolores Montgomery, a working single mother who first wrote to Bombeck in 1974 and exchanged letters with her for the next 22 years. "Erma made it all right for us to be everywhere and be a good mom."

Or a good enough one, at any rate. Bombeck never portrayed herself as perfect, and her children admit their mother wasn't always easy. "She liked people who were strong and held their own—she was a very big presence," says Betsy, remembering how critical Erma could be of the dates she and her brothers brought home. "If you didn't hold your own, she could roll over you."

Still, growing up chez Bombeck—in the Bellbrook, Ohio, farmhouse the family moved to in 1968, and then in Paradise Valley, where they moved in 1971—was mostly a privilege. "Mom stressed independence," says Andy, and was happy when he ultimately joined the Peace Corps. "She encouraged that kind of stuff." And though life wasn't as wacky as she wrote ("I'd be in an insane asylum if it was," says Betsy), it wasn't quite ordinary either. "She had this white purse, and one time she was in a store when some idea came," Betsy says. "She wrote a word on the outside of the purse. I remember thinking, 'That's different.' "

Bombeck's celebrity only increased with the years. She did humor segments on Good Morning America from 1975 to 1986; 11 of her books became bestsellers—but her ego did not keep pace. "She kept her fame in perspective," says Andy. She contributed to numerous charities, the American Cancer Society among them, and wrote a book, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise, about children with cancer, in 1989. A feminist who rarely defined herself as such—the term, she thought, implied a stridency she didn't feel—she campaigned tirelessly for ratification of the ERA in the 1970s. And she never put on airs. "She was just the same as she was when she had brick-and-board bookcases" in Dayton, says Mary Hackman, a college pal and a member of Erma's four-woman National Shoppers League, a group Erma formed in 1991 to join in her beloved buying sprees. "When you talked to her on the phone, she hugged you with her voice."

Bombeck's gift for friendship was striking. Charlotte Murphy was just one longtime friend with whom Erma corresponded for years. In 1995, on Murphy's 70th birthday, "she wrote, 'How can you be 70 when I'm only 50?' " says Murphy, who remembers once catching Erma at the post office with her hair in curlers and her nightgown hiked up under her coat. Bombeck stayed in touch with people from all phases of her life, buoying each with irreverent humor. "Erma took me to my first Catholic mass," says Lorraine Brodek, a friend since 1971, and when it came time for communion, "she said, 'Do everything I do,' " but cautioned not to let the priest put the wafer in her mouth. Said Erma: "You don't know where his hands have been."

She was also a friend others could count on in trying times. "When my 27-year-old son died 10 years ago," says Marianna Cochran, a close friend since college, "she was crying so hard she had to call back. She said, 'My God, I don't know how you can stand it,' and that was so comforting to me. Everyone else said, 'I know what you're going through,' and they didn't."

In 1992, Bombeck had a crisis of her own: a malignancy in her left breast. Brief chemotherapy followed a mastectomy, and she made light of both. To former Dayton radio host Bette Rogge Morse, she wrote, "Bill said, 'Honey, we'll get through this together.' I said, 'What's this we crap, I'm the one throwing up.' Bill smiled and said, 'That's your part,' and we both cracked up."

But Erma was deeply shaken, Bill now reports—all the more so because her kidneys were beginning to fail, and a transplant, her best option, would be impossible until she was cancer-free. (Polycystic kidney disease can remain dormant for decades before producing inoperable cysts that impede renal function. Andy and Matthew have inherited the condition but so far show no symptoms.) She began home dialysis and kept writing her columns—"and any time you talked to her, she'd have something funny to say about the dialysis," says The Family Circus cartoonist Bil Keane, a friend and neighbor.

On April 2, 1996, a suitable donor organ was found, and the Bombecks flew to San Francisco, where Erma underwent surgery on the morning of April 3. Kidney transplants have a high overall success rate, and at first it looked as though Bombeck would pull through. "I talked to her on the phone," says Glenna Jones Shapiro, executive director of the Arizona Kidney Foundation, "and she said, 'Glenna, this kidney isn't working yet, but I'm feeling great. It's going to work. It's such a miracle.' " Soon afterward blood clots developed in the vessels leading to Bombeck's new kidney, and the problems kept coming. "They just ran out of time," says Bill. "I felt sorry for the surgeon. He felt like he was operating on the mother of the United States, and it was such a burden." Erma died at 3:27 a.m. on April 22.

Later that day, says Bil Keane, "there were tears coming down the faces of checkout people at the local supermarket who knew her." Since then, friends and family have tried to cope by "thinking how she would want us to handle it—she would want us to stay positive," says Andy. For Bill that task began to seem manageable after last Father's Day, when he learned Matthew's wife was pregnant. "I hope it's a little girl," he said. "And I hope she has a space between her front teeth."

KIM HUBBARD
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Paradise Valley, BARBARA SANDLER in Dayton, JULIE JORDAN in Los Angeles and LAN N. NGUYEN in New York City

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