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Erma Bombeck (1927–1996) was one of the best-loved humorists of her day, known for her witty books and syndicated columns. In 1967, she published At Wit’s End, a collection of her favorite columns. Bombeck would go on to write eleven more books, including The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976), If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? (1978), and Aunt Erma’s Cope Book (1979). Her books were perennial bestsellers, and helped bolster her reputation as one of the nation’s sharpest observers of domestic life. She continued writing her syndicated column until her death in 1996.
Station Wagons ... Ho!
Staking Out a Claim
It was either Thomas Jefferson—or maybe it was John Wayne—who once said, "Your foot will never get well as long as there is a horse standing on it."
It was logic like this that attracted thirty million settlers to the suburbs following World War II.
The suburbs were a wilderness with nothing to offer but wide, open spaces, virgin forests, and a cool breeze at night that made you breathe deep, close your eyes and sigh, "My God! Who's fertilizing with sheep dip?"
My husband held out against migration for as long as he could. Then one day we heard from our good friends, Marge and Ralph, who, together with their two children, set out in one of the first station wagons to a housing development thirty miles south of the city.
As Marge wrote, "We reached the suburbs on the 14th. There was no water and no electricity in our house so we had to hole up in a Holiday Motel for three days. The pool wasn't even heated.
"The yard is barren and there are no sidewalks. Mud is everywhere. There is no garbage pickup, our old stove won't fit in the new hole, and the general store has never heard of Oregano.
"We have aluminum foil at the windows to keep the sun from fading the children. I feel like a turkey. We have to claim our mail at the post office a mile and a half away. There is no super. We have our own washer and dryer which don't require quarters. I understand, however, that at the end of the month, there is something called a utility bill that is presented to us.
"There are some bright spots. We have a bath and a half. It is wonderful not to have to take numbers any more. Tomorrow, we are going to visit our first tree. It is situated on the only 'wooded' lot in the subdivision and is owned by the builder's daughter. Pray for us.... Affectionately, Marge."
"Doesn't that sound exciting?" I said, jumping to my feet.
"You say the same thing when your soup is hot."
"Where's your adventurous spirit?" I asked. "It's a new world out there—full of challenges. We're young yet. We could survive."
He put down his paper and swept his arms around to encompass the entire apartment. "What! Move and give up all of this?"
I looked around. I had to iron in the playpen. The kids were stacked in a triple bunk at night like they were awaiting burial at sea. If the phone rang, I had to stand on my husband's face to answer it. The dog slept under the oven, next to the crackers. And one day I yawned, stretched my arms and someone stored the complete works of Dr. Seuss and a pot of African violets on them.
"You'd never survive," he predicted. "It's a raw frontier—no schools, no churches, and only three registered Republicans. Frankly, I don't think you have the stamina or the threshold of pain for it."
"Stamina!" I shouted. "Are you telling me I have no stamina? A woman who has lived on the fourth floor of this apartment building for five years with the stairs out of order has no stamina? I have legs like a discus thrower. As for pain, I have been known to go without support stockings for as long as two hours."
"Do you honestly think you could move to a land where your mother is a 35-cent toll charge for the first three minutes?"
I hesitated, then squared my shoulders and said, "Yes!"
It was probably my imagination, but I thought I heard a whip crack and a voice shout, "Station Wagons ... Ho!"
The selling of the suburbs made the coronation of Queen Elizabeth look like an impulse.
On a Sunday afternoon you could tour Cinderella's Red Coach Farms, Mortgage Mañana, Saul Lieberman's Bonsai Gardens, or Bonaparte's Retreat ("Live the Rest of Your Life Like a Weak King").
Every development had its gimmick: flags flying, billboards, free rain bonnets, balloons for the kiddies, and pom pom girls that spelled out LOW INTEREST RATES in script.
My husband spread out the newspaper and together we went over the plats we had visited.
"What did you think of Tahitian Village?" he asked.
"Cute," I said, "but a little overdone. I mean dropping the kids into a volcano to play each morning just ...
"What about Chateau on Waldren's Pond?"
"Call it a woman's intuition, but I've never trusted a lake that had a sudsing problem on Monday mornings."
"Wanta check out Sherwood Forest?"
The sales office of Sherwood Forest was a tree stump surrounded by five or six salesmen dressed in tunics. Nearby was a plastic campfire that held a plastic pig on a spit and beyond that were 800 plastic houses.
"Welcome to Sherwood Forest," said a salesman schlepping along in a brown frock, a rope, and a pair of sandals. "I'm Friar Tuck and if you have any questions, feel free to ask them."
"If this is Sherwood Forest," I asked, "where are the trees?"
"You're standing over it," he said, staring at my knees.
My husband picked up the price list.
"You'll find that it is in keeping with the Robin Hood philosophy," he smiled.
We bolted toward the car, pursued by six Merry Men.
The adventure of moving to the suburbs had nearly worn off when we stumbled into Suburbian Gems.
"How much are the houses?" asked my husband.
"We have one standard price in Suburbian Gems," said the salesman. "$15,000."
We couldn't believe it. "Could we see the tracts?" we asked. He pulled down a giant map behind him solid with blocks representing houses. "I'm afraid we're pretty well sold out," he said. "The Diamond section went before we even advertised. Jade went fast. So did Ruby. And Pearl. I see even Zircon is blocked off."
"What's left?" we asked.
"Frankly Fake," he said. "Climb in the car and I'll drive you over to the sites so you can get the feel of the development."
When we pulled up in front of the house, I couldn't believe it. I got out of the car and ran through the two-story iron gates, up the half-mile of driveway to the veranda porch, touched the massive white pillars and ran my fingers over the large carved door. "It's Tara!" I said, my eyes misting, "I've come home to Tara."
"You understand, this is only the model home," said the salesman.
I buried my face in the wisteria that crept along the windows. "We understand. Could we see the rest of it?"
The double doors opened and our voices echoed our pleasure in the house, from the huge foyer to the curved stairway leading to the second floor.
Then, inside the living room, I saw it—the fireplace. A warmth came over me. I could see my husband standing against it in a sports coat with leather patches on the elbows holding a brandy and a copy of Emerson's essays.
I visualized me hanging a della Robbia wreath over it at Christmas and laughing children basking in its reflection after a snow. "We'll take it," I said suddenly.
As my husband lifted his hand to touch my face in a gesture of love, he was amazed to find a pen in it.
"If you will just sign the purchase agreement," said the salesman, "we can get on with the details of your new home in Frankly Fake."
I squeezed my husband's arm as he signed the agreement.
"We've never had a fireplace before."
"Oh, then you want the model with the fireplace?" asked the salesman.
"Well, now, is there anything else about the Williamsburg model that you like?"
"We like everything," I said.
"Oh, then you want the second floor, the extra baths, the tiled foyer, the stairway, the veranda porch, the larger lot ...?"
"Are you saying all those things are extra?"
"The Williamsburg is our best home," he said stiffly. "Our basic $15,000 is much the same only on a smaller scale."
"How small?" asked my husband.
"Let's see," he said, checking his price list. "The Pee Wee has three bedrooms and a one-car garage, spouting to protect your porch from the sun, full landscaping, and 850 luxurious square feet."
"Does it have a family room?"
"Two of them—both in white fixtures."
"But the Pee Wee does have the pillars and the porch ... I asked anxiously.
"I told you, it has everything except a second story, stairway, entranceway, and extra lot. Now, that covers about everything except what you want to do about the garage."
"What about the garage?" asked my husband.
"Do you plan on putting your car in it?"
"It crossed our minds."
"I see. I only mention it because a lot of people like to have a driveway leading to it. You don't have to, you understand, but it does get a little muddy and it's worth the extra cost to some people to have it filled in."
"But everything else is included in the original price?" asked my husband.
"Absolutely. All you have to do is make some decisions regarding the quality of materials. For example, all wiring is borderline standard unless you want to pay extra and have it pass inspection. (We nodded.) I think that's wise. Now, about your tub. Do you want it hooked up under your shower?"
We nodded numbly.
"I assumed you did because you already said you wanted to put a car in your garage and that's where we usually store the tub until the owner tells us otherwise. Speaking of storage, you are aware that without the second story, there is a crawl space over your entire house for storage?"
We smiled happily.
"Do you have some way of getting up there or do you want us to install a pull-down stairway as an extra? Let's see—apart from the paint, floor covering, spouting, storm windows, kitchen hardware, countertops, lighting fixtures, and keys, which are all extra, I think that does it."
His fingers fairly raced across the keys of the tabulator as the extras mounted. Finally, he smiled and said, "The final tab is $29,500. Welcome to Frankly Fake!"
As my husband handed back the pen, he smiled, waved it aside, and said, "Keep it. As a token of our mutual faith in one another."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him add, "Pen @ 59 cents" bringing the total to $29,500.59.
Lot No. 15436 ... Where Are You?
We must have driven two and a half hours before we found our house.
"Are you sure this is it?" asked my husband.
"I'm sure," I said tiredly. "This is the eighth house from the corner and the builder always staggers his styles so they won't all look alike. I counted them. There were the Williamsburg, the Richmond, the Shenandoah, and the Pee Wee, a Williamsburg, a Richmond, a Shenandoah, and this is our Pee Wee."
"I thought it was supposed to look like Mt. Vernon," whined our daughter, "with big pillars."
"But it does have pillars," I said, pointing toward the four supports that looked like filter-tip cigarettes.
"Will they grow?" asked our son.
"Children, please!" said my husband. Then, turning to me he asked, "Happy?"
I looked at the packing boxes stacked at the curb, the mail box on the ground, chunks of plaster embedded in the mud, windows dusty and spackled with paint and said, "I wish I could tell you—in front of the children."
"Well, let's go in and get settled," he said. "And take your muddy boots on the porch inside."
"What muddy boots?" I said. "Aren't they yours?"
"They're mine," said a woman coming out of one of the bedrooms.
"Who are you?" asked my husband.
"I live here," she said.
"Isn't this 5425 Ho Hum Lane?" he asked.
"Yes, but it's 5425 Ho Hum Lane Northeast. It used to be 18 Bluebird of Happiness Drive, but then the other street came through and changed it. When we bought it, it was 157 Squirrel Road, but Ho Hum Lane is on a circle and the even numbers change to the odd numbers at the house where the door is on backwards. You know the one?"
"Right. That's two down from the chuckhole in the road where your car falls through."
"That's the one. Besides, 5425 isn't going to be your permanent number. That's a lot number and will change when the post office assigns you your new one."
"Oh? Where's the post office? We haven't been able to find it."
"No one is quite sure yet. You notice how everything blends with the surroundings out here?"
"I've noticed. We went to a furniture store today and there was a bread card in the window. We almost passed it by."
"I know," she said. "The gas station on the corner blends in so well, I feel guilty if I pull in after dinner when he's cutting the grass. It was the council who decided they didn't want commercial businesses to look like commercial businesses. We had enough of that in the city. They wanted them to have that residential feeling."
"That makes a lot of sense," I said.
"I suppose so," she said, "but the other night it was embarrassing. My husband and I went out to dinner and there was a huge line so Russell (my husband) slipped the maître d' $2 and said, 'I think if you'll check your reservations, you'll find we're next. You came personally recommended.'
"'By whom?' asked the man in the black suit. 'This is a funeral home.'"
As we continued the search for our new home, I expressed some concern that every time we left the house we'd have to leave a kid on the front porch for a landmark.
"Things will be different," said my husband, "when the builder puts in the shrubbery."
"How much landscaping comes with the house?" I asked.
He tilted his head and recited from memory, "Let's see, we're down for five maples, eight taxus, six evergreens, two ash, four locust, 109 living rose hedge plants, two flowering mother-in-law tongues, and a grove of fifteen assorted, colorful fruit trees."
"Hey, I think this is it," I said, as he pulled into a driveway. "We are officially home!"
We turned the key in the door. My husband and I raced through the house to the backyard to get a glimpse of the flatbed truck and the lift that would turn our barren patch of mud into a jungle. The yard was empty.
"Where's the shrubbery?" asked my husband.
One of the children called from the house, "Mommy! Daddy! The shrubbery is here!"
"Where?" asked my husband.
"On the dining room table with the mail." We stood around the table. No one spoke as we viewed the envelope holding five maples, eight taxus, six evergreens, two ash, four locust, 109 living rose hedge plants, two flowering mother-in-law tongues, and a grove of fifteen assorted, colorful fruit trees.
My son had more foliage than that growing under his bed.
"Gather it up," said my husband, "and put it in the garage and for God's sake watch the dog. He has eight assorted fruit trees stuck in his tail."
By noon the next day we had planted the entire package.
"Whatya think?" asked my husband.
"It looks like a missile site," I grumbled.
"I think everything will survive the transplanting with the exception of the maple tree. The dog ...
"Yep. His tail brushed against it and the trunk snapped in half."
"I'm worried about the flowering mother-in-law's tongues."
"They just spoke to me. They said, 'Help.'"
The Original Settlers
The triumph of man over the suburbs was made possible by the sheer guts of a band of original settlers. Later, other fringe businesses would sprout up: a water supply, hospitals, grocery stores, post offices and schools; scouting programs and Good Humor trucks, but at the beginning, these scouts welcomed the newcomers from the city with hands outstretched—and palms upward.
The Telephone Representative
"Do you want a phone?" asked the lady at the door.
"What kind of a joke is that?" I asked irritably. "Does John Wayne salute the flag? Does Dean Martin drink? Does the Pope work Sundays? Of course I want a phone," I said, literally dragging her into the living room. "Where do I sign?"
"My goodness," she smiled. "Not so fast. We have some decisions to make. First, let me introduce myself. I am Miss Turtletaub, your telephone representative, and I'll be handling your application. Now, to begin with, what type of service do you want?"
"The one where the phone is in the house."
"You're teasing," she said. "Do you want the party line that is quaint, but a drag, the two-party line where you share your phone with an informer, or the popular private service?"
"Private. Now when ...
"I assume you want more than one phone in a house of this size. Where is your family room?"
"Down the hall, first door to the left and lock it or the kids will bust in on you."
"Oh. Then what about a phone in your bedroom? After all, there is nothing more frightening than the insistent ring of the phone after midnight when your loved ones need you the most and you are busy breaking your leg in a dark hallway."
Excerpted from The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank by Erma Bombeck. Copyright © 1976 Erma Bombeck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 19, 2013
Posted May 17, 2007
This book tells of everyday life that many parents stress out about but it presents it in a way where people will laugh about it, maybe not while it's going on but certainly afterwards. There's a recent series of books that are similar but they deal more with the interactions of people and wild animals, are funny yet very accurate, called Wonderful Stories from Skog Forest.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2004