midpoint (2006-29)

The sacred ordinary

Old School

by Stephanie Piper

It’s a journalistic relic now, a 20-year-old photo in shiny black and white, curling slightly at the edges. It’s me and Erma Bombeck in the coffee shop at the old Hyatt. She’s talking. I’m writing. It was, I recall, a great interview.

Erma, in town to plug her latest book, sipped decaf and handed me one money quote after another, practically dictating the 25-inch feature I needed for the Friday Style section. She joked with the waitress and signed napkins for an endless parade of admirers. And then, when the morning rush slowed down, she gave me the straight scoop on column writing.  

Erma always said she became a columnist because she was too young for Social Security, too old for a paper route and too tired for an affair. That was the version with the punch line. The wisdom she shared with me that morning had no punch line, but I never forgot it.   

Her first office was a card table in her garage, she told me. She had small children at home and not much money and even less time. But she made it work. “You can’t play around with being a columnist,” she said. “Either you’re a professional, or you’re not. Kids get sick. Basements flood. The septic tank backs up. You don’t miss deadlines and you don’t make excuses.”

Despite a half-dozen bestsellers and frequent TV appearances, Erma had no illusions about job security. “I didn’t invent domestic humor,” she said. “I wasn’t the first to write about home and family, and I sure won’t be the last. Every so often I have to get out and look around and see who’s sneaking up behind me in the laundry room.”

When we parted that day, she autographed a copy of her new book for me. “Keep on doing what you’re doing,” she wrote. Coming from her, it was like a giant, flashing directional signal on the highway of life. Two years later, I wrote my first column. 

I don’t have a picture of my interview with Celestine Sibley, renowned columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution . I talked to her on the phone at her log cabin in Sweet Apple, Ga., the wires crackling with static. There was nothing fuzzy or indistinct about Celestine, though. She told me she’d rather cover a murder trial in a small town than win a Pulitzer, but one day legendary AJC editor Ralph McGill talked her into writing a piece about her daughter’s tonsillectomy. Reader mail poured in, and her column was launched. It ran for 50-something years. 

I met her in person once, when she came to a book-and-author dinner in Knoxville. We talked for nearly an hour. Like Erma, Celestine understood the power of the ordinary, how the minutely observed details of daily life, filtered through the twin lenses of humor and compassion, catch us up and revive us and make the world a little lighter for a few minutes. She told me about her first husband, “the celebrated alcoholic,” and about raising three children alone and being poor and walking to work to save the bus fare. And she told me about getting her first job at a weekly paper in Alabama when she was still in high school, and what her English teacher said to her: “If you work hard and you’re lucky, you might write something that people remember for a little while.” 

Erma and Celestine are gone now, and I count myself blessed to have known them, even briefly. They weren’t the first to identify the sacred ordinary, or to recognize its beauty and silliness. They weren’t the last. But on balance, they may have been the best. They worked hard and were lucky, and I, for one, will remember them for a very long time.