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Life Lessons from When Harry Met Sally

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Yesterday was supposed to be just another day, a cross-things-off-the-list kind of day. But then I woke to the news that the rest of the world had: Nora Ephron had died. Died? It didn't seem possible. Hadn't she just written something hilariously funny? I racked my brain for where I'd seen it. The Huffington Post? An essay from her book, I Feel Bad about My Neck? Then I realized, no.

It wasn't her articles or books. It was simply a line from her classic film, When Harry Met Sally, that had stayed with me: "I want you to know that I will NEVER want that wagon-wheel coffee table." My husband and I, in the thick of home renovations, had just had a very similar conversation about a similar piece of furniture, in this case a dresser.

As I read all the moving obituaries, I was struck by just how much Ephron had accomplished on so many levels -- as a writer, a director, a producer, a mother. And I realized that reading her obituary was different from others I'd seen about famous writers in the New York Times or The Washington Post. Nora's death was somehow personal. Not just because her style, her wit, her humor, her free-wheeling feminism that lacked stuffiness, her hopeless romanticism that persevered even in the face of a world that told her otherwise, were all things that I aspired to emulate in my own life. But because she'd written my favorite screenplay of all time.

My family teases me about my obsession with When Harry Met Sally. Not only do I own multiple dvd versions, but my bookcase holds the battered old videotape case, my first ever copy of the movie that I bought as soon as it came out in 1989. To say this movie encapsulates the guiding principles of my life might be an overstatement -- but not by much.

It's not just the lovely music playing in the background, or the fact that "It Had to Be You" was my wedding song, or that the cuts to the older married couples move me to tears every time I watch. Rather, it's because often, when words fail me, the voices of Sally Albright and Harry Burns ring in my ears, some witticism that Ephron penned about life's truths and absurdities. And while the line "I'll have what she's having" may be best known, I'll always consider the following twelve aphorisms some of Nora's wisest words.

12 Life Lessons from When Harry Met Sally

1. "Never take anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship." As Harry explains, you don't want your girlfriend/wife asking five years later, "How come you never take me to the airport anymore?"

2. "I'll have it on the side." Don't be afraid to specify how you'd like things to be. Life's too short.

3. "If you need a root canal, Sheldon's your man." Think carefully about what you name your children.

4. "At that moment I knew. I knew the way you know about a good melon." Trust your instincts, especially when it comes to people. Often you can tell by a simple squeeze whether someone is fresh, bruised, or just plain rotten.

5. "Just let it lie." Sometimes it's best not to worry things to no end and move on instead.

6. "Someone's staring at you in personal growth." It pays to look up from your book every now and then.

7. "When I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot, she said, 'Ted Kennedy was shot?'" Don't assume your world is the same one that others live in.

8. "Then at Eddie's funeral I ran into her. And I said... Whattya doing after? We go out for coffee... and a month later we're married." I love this account from one of the couples, married for thirty-five years, the second time around. Even in sadness can come some good. Or, in other words, carpe diem.

9. "The fact that you're not answering leads me to believe you're either A) not at home B) home but don't want to talk to me or C) desperately want to talk to me but are trapped under something heavy." Always answer your phone when you can.

10. "Mallomars, the greatest cookie of all time." Enough said.

11. "I rode up nine extra floors just to keep talking to her. Nine extra floors." Follow your heart, no matter how many floors it takes you to. Did I mention I met my husband on an elevator?

12. "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." Everything can shift in an instant. It may just take us, as it for did Sally and Harry, a good ten years to realize it.

When delivering her address at the Wellesley commencement in 1996, Ephron said, "One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is 'don't take it personally,' but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally."

Nora, I can't help but take your passing personally. We'll miss you. We love you.