Nora Ephron died this week. I was devastated when I read the news. She spoke for me. What she wrote rang true. And her style of writing—as if she were speaking to me, right here with me—was what I wanted so much to emulate but never quite captured.
She was funny, witty, and wise, and she was always honest. She was a keen observer of human foibles, her own as well as those of others. She had the courage to bare her own warts and make them funny. By making us laugh, she helped us to accept the things we most worry about but rarely discuss. She was opinionated, and if she didn’t like what she saw, she used her wit as a razor to slice through artifice. She was smart and quick—words never seemed to fail her. Ephron wasn’t afraid to take on the unmentionable. Forty years ago, she wrote in a men’s magazine about the embarrassment her small breasts caused her. “A Few Words About Breasts” became a classic. Nobody before her had written about deeply personal issues.
“I’ll have what she’s having”—it’s one of the best-known lines from any movie—and many of her readers would say that about Ephron’s life and career. She began as a journalist, wrote essays for The New Yorker, op-eds for The Times, screenplays, novels, and plays. She became a successful movie director, a rare feat for a woman. Mike Nichols said that what made her so good was her people skills. She’s a hard act to follow. She raised the bar very high.
Ephron embodied the duality of aging: She could look back and feel good about her many accomplishments, all the while coping with bagging and sagging and all the other affronts and assaults on her aging body. In I Feel Bad About My Neck, she commented, “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.” So she kept hers covered. I never saw her without a turtleneck or a scarf. She made no bones about her vanity. Despite loving food and being an excellent cook, she ate very sparingly and maintained her trim figure (below the neck, of course).
She made us laugh at the many small challenges—indignities, really—of aging. And so she wrote I Remember Nothing. But was she laughing with us?
I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn’t it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up. You can delude yourself that no one at the table thinks of you as a geezer. And finding the missing bit is so quick. There’s none of the nightmare of the true Senior Moment— the long search for the answer, the guessing, the self-recrimination, the head-slapping mystification, the frustrated finger-snapping. You just go to Google and retrieve it.
Ephron refused to be a victim, and I’m sure that’s why no one but her family knew she was fatally ill. When she published I Remember Nothing, four years after receiving the diagnosis of leukemia, she had to know that she was dying. Now, in retrospect I admire and respect her even more. She clearly didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. She didn’t.
But I didn’t know she had leukemia, I didn’t know she was sick, so the news of her death was a bombshell.
I did know this: She understood the value of coming to terms with the inevitable. “You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” she told National Public Radio in November 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
Good advice at any age.
Follow Diane Vacca at dianevacca.wordpress.com