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Claudia Zelevansky

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A Letter From Nora

Posted: 06/27/2012 1:15 pm

Never be afraid of anything.

Nora Ephron didn't say that. I mean, she may have, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if she did, but I'm actually quoting another woman here. Another seriously tough, smart woman who, like Nora Ephron, seemed unusually equipped for living. But even though Nora Ephron didn't say that (at least to me), it feels like one of her many mottoes. It feels like how she was.

I think I first knew who Nora Ephron was because of Heartburn, the book. We were on some kind of family vacation and my mother was reading it and I remember her laughing out loud. I borrowed it after she was done and laughed out loud, too -- I absolutely loved it -- though I suspect I missed a fair amount of it, since I was only 12. But some of its brilliance came through and I still remember the notion of "the kind of romantic that only a cynic is truly capable of being" with intense clarity. Even as an almost teenager, that notion of vulnerability hiding under resolute toughness cut through.

A few years later I saw When Harry Met Sally in the theaters, and even now I can recall the Upper West Side location where I watched it (sadly no longer there) and how much I loved it and how it defined the idea and ideal of romance to me. It shaped and imprinted itself on me, along with all the amazing one-liners and catch phrases like "baby fish-mouth" and "surrey with a fringe on top -- in front of Ira!" In college, my girlfriends and I watched it again and again and waited to have a shot at using some of what we had learned.

Near the end of college, I took a sort of capstone course in my theater department called Non-Fiction Studies, informally referred to as the one-person show class. You had to pick a real person, famous or unknown, and using only materials by or about them, create a long-form solo performance. I do not know what made me choose Nora Ephron, but it was immediate and inevitable, and I spent several months living with her words, working primarily from her material as a journalist and essayist and, of course from Heartburn.

My professor for the course warned us to choose our subject carefully because we would be, for all intents and purposes, living with the person, dating the person, throughout the months of inquiry. He was right. I spent every moment with Nora during that period, and it was an idyllic cohabitation, at least for me. In fact, when our professor encouraged us to pick a teammate from the class, a buddy to move through the process with, I refused -- why would I want another person in the relationship?

Snatches of her writing swim in my brain, even now. I remember her reporting her mother's response to dying: "You're a writer, Nora, take notes." And of course, "Everything's copy." What a tremendous resource for dealing with pain and disappointment -- to make it into something, to control the story, to never be afraid of anything -- there's that phrase again. Or, since that's impossible for most of us: to be courageous in the face of fear. To move on. To do it anyway.

I'm sitting here so many years later, feeling lousy about her death. Language around grief and loss tends to be hackneyed and inadequate, and I certainly can't solve that. But what is powerful to me is the remarkable outpouring of tributes I've seen and heard -- on Facebook, Twitter, television -- and even in person! I knew she was wonderful and popular and successful, and I know how much she meant to me, but I did not realize how endemic her impact was and particularly how much of a model she became for so many women.

But of course she was. How could I imagine that I was the only one who had been in an important relationship with her? She clearly got around -- and in the best possible way.

Never be afraid of anything. When I finished college and found myself a few weeks in to that first impossibly hot, wide-open summer of adulthood, when everything was scary and unknown, I decided to write to Nora and tell her about the performance I had done. To thank her. Even though I wasn't asking her for anything, my hands shook as I put the letter in the mailbox. The letter that was going to travel approximately four blocks to her apartment. Somehow the close proximity made it even more brazen. Who was I to be writing to her?

To my delight and shock, I got a letter back -- and fast. It's buried somewhere in a box of very important documents in my parents' basement in another city, and I haven't looked at it for a long time, but I can still recall her generous, funny, and familiar tone -- and the feeling that somehow I had done something right.

To be honest, I suspect my hands would still shake if I did it again today. I still might think: Who am I to be writing to her? I'm still not brave in the way I imagine her to be, but these days I usually put the letter in the mailbox in the end. And Nora Ephron gets some credit for that.

 
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