Obituaries and year-end tributes will illuminate Ephron’s groundbreaking career as a writer and film director. They will toast her wit that shined and carved like a scalpel. The irreverent will quote her infamous line about her second husband Carl Bernstein: “The man was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” Her peers and loved ones will share tales of her oft-noted generous spirit and culinary panache.
I’ve been a huge fan of Ephron’s work since I first pilfered my mom’s copy of Heartburn my junior year of college. So when a friend called last Monday night to say Ephron’s death was imminent, it felt as if I were about to lose a confidant. It’s axiomatic that our celebrity-drenched culture allows all and sundry to feel as if they “know” bold-face names. But few artists create the nearly unshakeable devotion Ephron seemed to instill within her fans. I can’t regale you with our adventures perusing scallions at Balducci’s or watching rough cuts on the Sony Pictures lot, though, assuredly, they did occur in my mind. Instead, I can tell a story that I hope does the great lady justice.
In my close-knit, Greek-American family, summer 2009 was notable for several reasons, not least of which included one first cousin nearly dying during childbirth, the youngest graduating with honors from her design school, and me contracting an especially pernicious case of shingles. Through happenstance, we are each eleven years apart in age, though more like sisters than cousins. As such, I didn’t allow my mom to tell them how debilitated I was because I didn’t want to disrupt impending motherhood or a burgeoning career. My pregnant cousin forbade her mom from telling us how precarious her situation had become because she knew I was too ill to take action and she, too, didn’t want our “baby” cousin to worry as she prepared for graduation. By August, when each of us finally discovered the truth, we were all quite moved by the efforts we had taken to protect one another. Also, we decided this bullshit must stop and that we needed some mischief, albeit of the sort that wouldn’t further annihilate two-thirds of us.
Ephron’s Julie and Julia had just opened to stellar reviews and was playing at a theater equidistant to our respective Seattle homes. What better way to close an unpredictable season than to watch Meryl Streep and Amy Adams create many foods with butter and broth? And why not invite our moms and go to lunch and make a day of it?
The six of us arrived early so we could get seats in the same aisle. We eschewed concession snacks and partook of the copious organic chocolate I’d smuggled in my bag. Most importantly, we six who, through dumb luck happen to be related and love each other and (usually) get along, were transported for the next two hours by Ephron’s deft touch and rare gift for making the improbable seem likely. Afterward, over a sumptuous seafood meal, we discussed Ephron’s Parisian settings and why Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally would always remain among our favorites. All of which sounds unbearably “chick” until you consider none of us tolerates crap whatsoever. Ephron reminded us of ourselves, which might sound a bit inane when you consider her three Oscar nominations. Rare is the individual who has been venerated her entire adult life but who still seems, in the best sense, to share something in common with some of her enthusiasts.
It felt as if we should have set a place for Ephron and asked her what she thought of the crab. An unlikely scenario, to be sure, now rendered impossible. But that afternoon, Julia Child mastered French cooking, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams mastered Julia Child, the ill could walk, the young could dream, all could laugh and Nora Ephron, in her inimitable way, had orchestrated the whole thing.
In Heartburn she wrote, “In the end, I always want potatoes.” Though she was referring to break-ups, in some absurd way she might appreciate, the line works well for death, too. Tonight I ate sweet potatoes and re-read some of her early essays.
Then I returned to my deadlines, grateful she had been here and sad she is gone.