"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."
― Nora Ephron 1941-2012
I first met Nora Ephron when I was ten or eleven at one of my grandmother's summer parties in Martha's Vinyard. It wasn't a big deal because my family was made up of writers and publishers who hung out with famous writers, editors, politicos, so Nora was just another grown-up who had done impressive things. I can't tell you what she said, because I was waiting for lunch to end, or thinking about a horses, or why I wasn't at camp like normal kids. What I do remember is that she wasn't like other grown-ups. Nora didn't ask stupid questions like "How old are you?" She didn't say, "How much you've grown!" She asked what you were thinking about and when you answered, her eyes didn't glaze over. She made you feel that your ideas about peanut butter or Huckleberry Finn were just as important as her next dinner with Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep.
In the 1980s, when I was a teenager and things were not so great at home, I ran into her several times at Steps Dance studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had to take the bus alone across Central Park to take jazz dance there. Dance was a place I could lose myself and recreate myself and forget about the fights at home or the clique at school or the boys who weren't in love with me. Nora's pre-teen sons Jacob and Max were the only boys in a room filled with girls in tutus. I was surprised and fascinated that Nora didn't think it was gay for boys to do ballet. (Back then people didn't know it was ignorant to use the word gay.) I remember thinking, there's a mom who waits for her kids even though she's probably got a meeting with the King of Siam in thirty minutes.
When I was twenty-one I saw "When Harry Met Sally" and I thought: Oh my God Nora totally gets me! I didn't see Nora anymore because I was just out of college and I didn't go home much. But Nora's depiction of Sally gave me permission to be just who I was: disheveled, disorganized, and slightly neurotic, with a tendency to crash my car into stable objects. Every time I drove my car into a parked car I thought, this can't be that bad because Nora Ephron's heroines are constantly crashing into things too. Even though I'd totally screwed up my love life, I clung to the hope that if Sally could have a second chance maybe I could too.
When I was forty I began writing humor essays for The Huffington Post about raising my twin sons. Full of hope and trepidation I emailed Nora and asked, "Do you remember me?"
"Of course I do," she answered back a few weeks later. She apologized for taking so long to get back to me. She took the time to read not one, but several of my essays, and sent words of encouragement back. Nora never bothered to tell me that she was battling a terrible illness and was in the fight for her life. She just said, "Keep writing."
I phoned my best friend and said, "Oh my god, Nora Ephron thinks I'm a decent writer!" It was like getting the stamp of approval from God.
Then I got divorced. Knowing that Nora had divorced, turned a tragedy into a bittersweet comic piece of writing ("Heartburn"), and survived raising boys made it seem a little less awful. I emailed Nora to tell her I could now write for the Divorce page after all. I wiped the tears from my face and began typing.
When I was forty-three I taught a humor writing class called Transforming Life's Disasters into Laughter and I assigned Nora's essay: The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less. We discussed how Nora managed to achieve so much in such a short space, how in the words of her mother, if you live your life according to the adage that "everything is copy," there's a way in which your worst moments become your richest material.
Over the past two years, when overcome with writerly anxiety (Am I good enough? Funny enough? Will the book get finished, published, make dime?) I've sent emails to Nora seeking her wisdom, guidance, courage. Each time I saw her name in my inbox it felt like winning the lottery, "Keep them, coming! Charming! Brilliant...) Never did she say she was too busy, too important, too sick to respond to a woman she once knew as a little girl and had not set eyes on in thirty-four years.
A few weeks ago and about fifty pages away from finishing my fiftieth draft of my novel (the one that now needed to pay for the divorce and the house repairs) I sent another email, "Dear Nora, I'm planning on being in New York this summer and hoping I might meet with you again and introduce you to my boys."
I imagined (delusionally and narcissistically) that she might wrap her arms around me, recognizing in me some version of her younger self (albeit a few years behind in literary and film accolades) and we would have some kind of fairy godmother/lost stepchild reunion in which she'd adopt me and show me the path toward Oz.
One week ago, I noticed Nora was taking longer than usual to respond. I began to worry, although I figured she was just busy. I knew she was older than when I'd last seen her, but to my mind she was still forty-something, still immortal.
I am now forty-four, about the age that Nora must have been when we first met. On Tuesday a friend emailed me, "Ohmigod did you hear?" My stomach sank. I clicked on the link. I saw the flood of adoring obituaries. I was reminded once more of all the extraordinary movies she'd written, "Silkwood," "Harry Met Sally," "You've Got Mail," "Julie and Julia"; I learned that she had been sick for six years. All that time I had no idea, because she was too generous to tell me and I was too stupid to connect the dots even though she'd written her own goodbye in her book "I Remember Nothing."
When I was ten, I thought seventy-one was as old as the Mummies in Egypt. Now it is only twenty-seven years away from me and I count it out as the number of years I may have left. If I write one-tenth as many books, essays and screenplays as Nora before I die I might be okay with going at that time. But in reality, I know I'll be lucky if I publish one book or touch just one or two lives. Having met my fair share of famous people I can say this, beyond her literary and film achievements Nora managed to retain her humanity, her kindness, her generosity. There's something wonderful about meeting a heroine of yours and discovering that she's just what you imagined she'd be like in the movie after all.
After hearing the news I walk over to my laptop and close it. I want to quit working on my final draft of my novel because without Nora waiting on the other end to read it, I am terrified. I want to take a nap or eat five pounds of dark chocolate. But then I wonder, what would Nora say if she were to answer my last email?
I imagine she'd tell me to have a piece of pie and then sit my ass down and write. She'd probably say, "I'm sorry it took so long to get back to you."