all of the selves we Have ever been
The Hysterical Society
Except for a stint in the army, Uncle Lloyd spent his entire life on the family farm. He remained firmly attached to his caveman roots and his family ancestry working the land. This led to some peculiarities of manner and speech. For instance, when discussing if he might wish to donate some of the family heirlooms to the local Historical Society, Lloyd repeatedly referred to the organization as the Hysterical Society. That’s just the way the word came out when he spoke. No point in correcting him. He would not have heard the distinction. If Uncle Lloyd had lived to see the COVID pandemic, we might have given him some extra credit for his prescient prognostication.
Panic-stricken, agitated, frantic, distraught, beside ourselves—all manner of hysteria applied. My one retreat during that time was the library. Even when the doors closed during the worst of the pandemic, the drive-through remained open. It was during that time that I reconnected with a long-gone but much loved member of that other Hysterical Society. I write today to honor her: Happy Birthday, Erma Bombeck!
Even as a kid, I loved the newspaper. Not much for the comic section, I did try to peer into my future with regular readings of my daily horoscope. I practically earned an M.D. from the Ask the Doctor column, and I built a solid foundation for my future as a therapist by reading Dear Abby, but my favorite column was At Wit’s End by Erma Bombeck. While she was facing middle age, I was facing middle school.
At a time when people did not “air their dirty laundry in public,” she made a living from it – a middle age, middle class porn star to the homemaking set. She talked about things we experienced but no one else talked about openly, especially not in front of children. It was a glimpse into the foibles of family life in the suburbs and a sneak peek into the private parts of a grown up life.
During the COVID pandemic, as I was at my own wit’s end, I borrowed some of her old books from the library. The titles alone were hilarious: The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, The Ties that Bind and Gag, When you Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to go Home, and I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, among others.
As I read and laughed out loud, I was reminded that so many “revolutions” have come and gone. Issues that once rocked the country came and went, and we remained standing. The women’s movement, including sexual freedom and birth control, and the mass migration of families to the fresh and growing suburbs were all new to Erma and her generation. While it was simply the state of things when I was born, I was reminded that it was all new and unnerving to the folks who came before me. They adapted.
As businesses closed and workers fled to their home offices, and children went to school at their dining room tables dressed their pajamas, Erma gave me some perspective: we have been through revolutionary changes before; we will get through this one, too. What a gold mine Erma would have unearthed from our pandemic experience! She knew that humor mixed with love was the antidote to just about everything, and she instinctively knew just the right mix of each to keep us laughing and healing without hurting ourselves or others.
Nietschze wrote that “in heaven all of the interesting people are missing.” I’m pretty sure he is wrong, at least since 1996. Maybe what makes heaven heaven is that it is full of all the people who died laughing.
See you there, Erma.