Humor, human interest from Erma — an iconic sister

Erma Bombeck was the funniest Ohio housewife – ever.

Erma grew up in a modest suburb of Dayton, wrote for her school newspaper, and worked at the Dayton Herald as a copygirl. Before she received her English degree from the University of Dayton, one of the Marianist Brothers at the University said to her, “You can write!” – the statement that changed her life.

Her columns were a humorous take on the life of a suburban housewife, a hilarious chronicle of middle-class life in America after World War II. She was syndicated in more than 900 newspapers and published 15 books.

Her battle with kidney disease and her advocacy for health and women’s rights made her more than a source of laughter. She inspired many with her warmth and compassion.

The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton continues her legacy, supporting aspiring writers to find the humor in the humdrum.

I first attended the workshop and conference in 2006, but I had not returned. Last Christmas, when the dates for the 2024 biennial gathering were announced, I thought, Well, I can do it this year, but I don’t know whether my carcass will be up to it in 2026 … better go now. I registered and sent them my moolah.

The Erma Bombeck Writing Competition is also held biennially, in conjunction with the workshop. Many hundreds of writers from almost every state and around the globe enter the competition.

The awards are First Prize and two Honorable Mentions in each of two categories: Human Interest and Humor. I feel very fortunate to have won two early Honorable Mentions. I entered seven more times in the next 14 years and … nothin’. Sigh.

The competition’s entry deadline this year was Jan. 8. “Winners will be notified by February 19th.” So, I was surprised to receive an afternoon phone call from the administrator, on Feb.. 12. “Marcy, you won the Global First Prize.” I almost fell off the sofa. OMG. OMG! OMG!! Stunned. Thrilled. I didn’t have words to describe the atmosphere on Cloud 9!

I humbly share the award-winning essay that I read in Dayton:

Heart and Sole

The first time we met, Pat gave me her shoes.

She was noticeable in the party crowd — tan, sleek, laughing. When introduced to her, I kiddingly said, “If your shoes turn up missing, check my house.” The aqua beads on her white sandals perfectly matched my outfit. We chuckled about our skinny size tens and were old friends by party’s end. As I got into the car for home, her husband, John, came running up the driveway with a brown paper bag.

“She wants you to have these.”

“John, she can’t give me shoes right off her feet?!” But she did. I loved them and wore them. A lot.

Later that year, my 3-inch heels began arguing with my lower back. My elegance era at an end, I gave them all to Pat, ten years younger. We laughingly declared ourselves “Sole Sisters,” and I felt a little better.

That winter, she knitted me new potholders and a pair of cozy lounging socks. Every time I saw her, she greeted me, “my sole sister,” and our private joke continued. Eavesdroppers thought it was deep, spiritual. We giggled about that too.

I began to find homemade gifts tucked inside the storm door. Strawberry jelly, signed “Your sole sister.” And blueberry jam, “Solely for you.”

One Spring morning, a jaunty little May basket of posies hung on the front doorknob. I grinned at the tag’s “O solo mio.”

I told her not to tell anyone she was wearing my shoes. But she delighted in thrusting a long leg forward, pointing her toes, and declaring, “Aren’t these GAW-JUS? They’re from my sole sister.” She’d just wink at me.

When I finally delivered my last and lowest heels, I told Pat, “The end of the heel train, kiddo. I am flat out.” She hugged her sympathy.

Pat’s early cancer had been in remission for 20 years. Its sudden return hit everyone hard. The metastasis spread widely, rapidly, leaving us stunned by her bravado.

“I’m going to hang around until you publish your book,” declared my feistiest cheerleader. “I’m not going to miss my sole sister in print!”

I took her some muffins the last time I visited, a month before my book published. She was wearing a pair of my old sandals, and slowly lifted a leg to show me. She died four days later.

John came to my book signing two months after Pat passed. “I want two copies, one for me and one inscribed to Pat.” Mystified, I looked up, barely containing the waterworks. “It’s going beside her reading chair,” he explained. “She was always happy when she talked about your sole sister fun. I want to look across the den and see her soul smiling.”

Marcy O’Brien writes from Warren, Pa.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today