by Wade Rouse
I have two women to blame for my lot in life: Erma Bombeck and my mother.
Both conspired, it seems, to make me not only a writer but a damn humorist. (And if you think art and books are subjective, try humor.)
As a kid, I used to write about everything going on around me in my tiny Ozarks town: Whether I was forced to go cowtippin’ with the country boys or watch my mom the nurse make dinner in her bloody scrubs, it seemed to be only the only way I could make sense of the world.
For a while when I was young, I called my mom “Digit,” because she became infamous in our little town for being the go-to gal whenever a local cut off a toe with a lawnmower, or whacked off a finger with a chainsaw.
My mother would answer our giant red, rotary phone, the kind presidents use in comedy skits when they are about to launch a nuclear bomb, and calmly say, “Do you have your big toe? Well, can you locate it? Good!”
And then she would rush out of the house, often barefoot, in a nightgown, with a little Igloo cooler filled with ice. She would retrieve the detached digit, and personally rush the injured idiot to the ER of the neighboring hospital where she worked.
She, of course, eventually found my journal entries about her, and ended up – one morning when I was inhaling a bowl of Quisp for breakfast – shoving the daily paper in front of my nose.
“You need to read Erma,” she sighed.
I immediately adored her.
From that point on, I was devoted to Erma Bombeck’s column, “At Wit’s End,” in our small-town newspaper, and even clipped a few of my favorites to adorn my corkboard wall.
Though I was very young, maybe 11 or 12 at the time, Erma connected deeply with me.
She was a humorist and human who made the mundane memorable.
She wrote about family and food, laundry and life.
She wrote about everyday stuff with which I could relate.
For instance, “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank” was funny, yes, like its title, but it was also deeper: Along with daily suburban family issues, Erma tackled diet and self-image in this book.
And for a chubby little gay boy in the middle of nowhere who had a fondness for ascots and dreams of being a writer, I found a role model in a middle-aged mother who seemed to be dealing with just as many self-esteem issues as I was.
Actually, make that two middle-aged mothers.
From that day my mom led me to Erma, I wrote and journaled more earnestly about my life, yet I always tried to do it with humor, just like she did. I found laughter softened the pain, made life seem so much more bearable, even through incredible tragedy.
And that would be a fortuitous lesson. The summer my older brother graduated from high school, he was killed. That was followed in subsequent years by the deaths of my mom’s father and sister.
When my mother seemed no longer able to laugh, to dream, I made it my sole goal to bring her back to life. I read to her from Erma. I read to her from my journals. I held her hand. We became more than mother-son, we became friends.
I vividly remember the New Year’s Day in 2005 when I stood in front of my city mailbox clutching a fistful of query letters after I’d spent two years completing my first memoir, AMERICA’S BOY. It was cold, and I was shivering, but not because of the temperature. I was nearly 40. I hated my job. And my mom was tired, after having lost a son too early, of her only remaining child being unhappy, unfulfilled, not living his dream.
“Here’s to rejection!” I said, waving my query letters.
“Here’s to dreams coming true!” my mom had said.
She forced my hand into the mailbox, made me drop the letters, and then promptly slammed the slot on my fingers.
“Thanks, Digit!” I told my mom. “I’m glad you’re here, so you can save my fingers, or I’d just be all nubs and unable to type the letters H, J, M, N, U or Y, forever knocking words like ‘hominy’ and ‘yum,’ from my vocabulary.”
“This is meant to be,” she said, laughing. “And, I’m retired now anyway. Really, how many times are you ever going to write, ‘I love hominy. Yum!’”
Two weeks later, I had three formal offers of representation from literary agents, and a few months later – when I went to visit my agent for the very first time in New York – I was overwhelmed by what greeted me when I entered her office: Knee-high stacks of manuscripts and packages swallowed the lobby.
“This is what you were picked from,” I was told. “The slush pile.”
But, oddly, that didn’t overwhelm me; it emboldened me. It made me realize that if I – an odd Midwestern boy with zero connections in the publishing and literary world – could get his foot in the door, then anyone with talent, drive, thick skin, and a gut-wrenching desire simply to write, could do the same.
“People are going to read about you now, mom,” I told my mom after I returned from New York. “And some of it’s not pretty.”
“Good!” she told me. “Life isn’t pretty, sweetie. It’s life. That’s why you better have a damn good sense of humor.”
My mother passed away this June, but only after seeing my current memoir, AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM, featured on NBC’s Today Show as a Summer Must-Read Selection.
“To dreams!” she had said from her hospital bed. “And laughter.”
Though my mom and Erma are both now gone from my life much too soon, they remain with me: They continue to make me laugh, think, dream, and appreciate the fragility and foibles of people and life.
Because those are things that are most beautiful: The imperfections in each of us.
And that’s what I still try and remember every day, focus on in each and every memoir: I write about everyday life from a unique perspective – with a whopping dose of humor and cynicism – touching upon those themes that touch us all, be it unconditional love, loss, family, sex, relationships, jobs, self-esteem, neuroses, dreams. I believe that the very best books force us to hold a mirror up to our collective faces and take a good long hard look at what’s reflected back.
And that image always looks so much better if we somehow manage to smile, even through all those damn tears.
Wade Rouse is the author of three, critically-acclaimed memoirs, including America’s Boy, Confessions of A Prep School Mommy Handler, and his latest, At Least in the City Somone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life, about two neurotic urbanites that quit their jobs, and leave the city, cable and consumerism behind in order to move to the Michigan woods and recreate a modern-day Walden. At Least in the City Somone Would Hear Me Scream has already been named a Summer Must-Read by the Today Show, Detroit Free-Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Out Magazine, Chicago Magazine, St. Louis Magazine, Frontiers Magazine and bestselling memoirist Jen Lancaster’s “Jennsylvania” blog. For more information about this author, visit Wade Rouse’s official author website at waderouse.com or read Wade Rouse’s blog.