I’d like to introduce you to some wonderful women.
But first, a story.
Erma Bombeck spoke at my college graduation. This is how her speech began.
“Hello. I know you’re nervous about school ending and are filled with anticipation for the future and grief for leaving behind your loved ones. I know you’re worried you won’t make it on your own. But we’re not here to talk about you parents. We’re here for the graduates.”
[Insert laughter and applause here.]
It was 1984, I was graduating from nursing school, and was no one’s favorite nursing student. My best friend and I talked too much, laughed during enema-giving lessons, and acted like nursing school was an internship on Comedy Central. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand the seriousness of caring for the ill; it was that we did. Humor was our stress valve. We knew it, and Erma Bombeck knew it too.
When I heard that Erma (can I call you Erma?) would be doing our commencement speech, I wrote her a letter. I sent it to the newspaper editor that published her syndicated column. I was twenty-one, probably not her typical reader demographic. Still, my mother was a huge fan, and we read everything Erma wrote together.
Here’s how I started her letter.
“Dear Erma Bombeck, Or How you doin’ Erma Baby.” The audacity of the young! I knew she had a good sense of humor, obviously, so I went for it. I asked to meet her, show her Duluth, and have a coffee. And true to who she was at her core, she wrote me a letter which you see above.
After the graduation ceremony, there was a dinner. Erma was seated next to the president of the college. A man that didn’t care for me and my bestie. We’d met with him earlier in the year about lapses in the Nursing curriculum, which irritated him. How dare we critique anything? When I approached the table to make myself known to Erma as she’d asked me to in her letter, the president caught my eye and tried to intervene. His eyes widened. He shook his head, and he started to stand.
I introduced myself to Erma, and she immediately welcomed me as if we were old friends. The president looked like the HS principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—shocked and outraged.
I was dazzled by Erma’s warmth and don’t remember what she said, but here’s what I remember feeling. Validated, cared for, heard, and, if you don’t mind me saying so….loved.
She helped change how the world felt about funny women and made it clear that outspoken humor wasn’t just for men.
Last week I spoke at the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop in Dayton, Ohio and cried when they showed a slide show of her life. It was like refreshing the memories of times with my mom. I met Erma’s daughter and many others that I want you to meet. Let me introduce you to Lisa Roe, who wrote Welcome to the Neighborhood, Amy Poeppel, who has a new book, The Sweet Spot. Julie Cantrell, who is a light in the darkness, Karen Walrund, who writes about making light and joy while changing the world. I met Laraine Newman from Saturday Night Live, who has a new memoir out, and Katrina Kittle, author. She spoke so inspiringly in her keynote that I wanted to hug her while she spoke.
The conference reminded me that writing and humor connect us to our humanity, and I’m so glad you are all here and connected to me.