Whenever someone in our town died, my mother turned the oven up to 450˚ and headed to the grocery store to buy a piece of fillet steak as long as a man’s arm. She seasoned the meat with a packet of Lipton’s onion-soup mix and put it in the hot oven, which she then turned off. By the time the oven was cold, she reckoned the beef was perfectly rare and tender. An hour or so later, she’d take it to the grieving family.
That’s what I felt like doing this week when I heard that Nora Ephron had died. I felt like cooking something rare and special and taking it to her husband and two sons-whom I’ve never met and who live in New York. I felt the stunned bereavement that calls for doing something. Not knowing what to do, I took my collection of her books from the shelf and began to read. I started with her last book, called I Remember Nothing.
In the title essay, she describes entering the age of forgetting things. In the early days, she scrolled through a mental dictionary and waited patiently until the lost name/place/title floated back into her head. I know the feeling. A couple of years ago, my friend Marie Brenner sent Nora a column of mine. Nora wrote me a wonderful email back. That email is now lost in my hard drive, buried forever in the graveyard of an old email address. I can’t remember what the column was about. I remember nothing from her email to me.
Nora didn’t interpret these lapses as signs of Alzheimer’s or other harbingers of doom, but she worried increasingly about the many things she couldn’t remember anything about. She saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. She stormed the Pentagon in 1967 (actually, she thinks she never made it to the Pentagon because she spent the day in bed with a lawyer she was dating-proof to me that many things we’ve forgotten have been lost through an act of will). She lists remarkable people she met, including Cary Grant, Jacqueline Kennedy and Dorothy Parker, about whom she now remembers nothing.
More worrying for me, the more I read, the more I felt as if I were seeing the words for the first time. Each word felt as fresh, funny and revealing as a first-time read. The same with the movies she made. I recently watched Sleepless in Seattle again. I’ve now seen it at least five times, but each time, there are lines in it-great lines-I swear I’ve never heard. Still, I can repeat the entire scene when a female character tearfully describes the film An Affair to Remember, ending with a bewildered Tom Hanks saying ‘That’s a chick’s movie’.
The line’s a teaser, but anyone who thinks that Nora was a chick’s writer doesn’t get it. She wrote with a deceptively light touch about men and women, about the way we live now. Funny and shrewd, she said things that everyone felt, but no one had yet put into words.
And then, I reached the last few pages. I’d read them last year, but I had missed their meaning. They were a farewell note to her friends and readers, written after she had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, the worst kind there is. She told no one. After a lifetime of writing that her religion in life, the way she survived pain, betrayals, divorce, was Get Over It, she had come up against something she couldn’t get over.
Nor was she in the mood to turn it into a rollicking story. She simply made two lists. What I Won’t Miss, which included ‘E-mail, Funerals, Illness everywhere, Fox TV, Dead flowers, Small print, Panels on Women in Film’. What I Will Miss included ‘My kids, Nick [her husband], Spring, Bacon, Reading in bed, Paris, Pride and Prejudice, Pie’. Reading her brief goodbye made me think of my own lists. I have to say, Nora Ephron is high on the list of what I miss already.
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