Nora Ephron died this week. Our long-suffering correspondent broke the news late Wednesday night, reading it off the BBC app on his phone. He didn’t really know who she was, only that she was a writer and I’m a writer, so maybe I would care. He didn’t expect to have his arms suddenly full of soggy girlfriend, firing quotes at random through her tears.
“Men and women can’t be friends! Don’t cry, shop girl! You were the only person I knew in New York… She wrote my favorite movies,” I wept. Concerned and off-balance, (suddenly crying girlfriends are, I am assured, the worst kind of crying girlfriends) he did the only thing he could think of: he tried a joke.
“Yeah, but she also wrote You’ve Got Mail.” Only too quickly did he realize his mistake.
“That’s one of my favorite movies!”
He says he was about to start in on me about my bad taste in movies, but decided to hug me instead. There was nothing for it. One of my teachers was dead, and I needed to cry.
Nora Ephron taught me about love. She taught me about being a woman in a complicated, post-feminist world that doesn’t know what to do with you, but has a lot of ideas about what you ought to want. She taught me about being a good friend, having lunch, eating ice cream, talking, laughing, but always understanding that another person’s heart is ultimately unknowable, and you can’t really make anyone change. She taught me that being independent was the basic expectation. That you don’t need a relationship, you only want one very very much. You have to be hopeful, and smart, and aware of your choices, and you have to laugh. It’s not all a joke, but most of it can be really fucking funny if you let it.
She also told me you had to write it all down. I can’t say she made me a writer, but she taught me that you have to tell the truth, you have to borrow from life, and she helped me see that you can write the pain and it’ll get easier, that you can write through the joy and let more people share it.
She taught me that you have to pay attention to who drives you crazy and who makes you feel at home, because someone who does both at the same time might be the trouble you don’t want to get out of. She taught me that love is always a possibility, that if you have the feeling it might be love, you get on a plane and fly three thousand miles to find out.
All of these lessons were hidden in her movies. (Some more obviously than others.) Maybe she didn’t intend to teach anybody anything. She was writing for her contemporaries and for the women coming up just after them. Maybe she had no idea that a little girl would watch You’ve Got Mail, Mixed Nuts, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle a hundred times while she was growing up, that she would pore through them for wisdom, because these men seemed like men she wanted to be with, and these women seemed like people she wanted to be.
That girl watched those movies on the couch with her mother, talked about them, quoted them all the time. Each one was a right of passage. (Except Mixed Nuts, which was a fluke, but one of the best flukes in the world.) When she was about to go to college in New York City, she and one of her best friends went into the city for the day and she decided it was the right decision when she saw the Washington Square Arch and realized where she was. She was where Harry and Sally fell in love, where Joe and Kathleen had their bookstores. It was home.
When her mother had cancer and they sat on the couch in more dire straits than they ever thought, out came the Nora Ephron movies. They laughed and cried through them, too, and knew it was going to be okay.
And when I was a young woman in a relationship and realized that I was thinking of these movies as nice fantasies instead of possibilities, I left. And when I was on the edge of something and had the feeling it might be love, I got on a plane and flew three thousand miles to find out.
You need to believe in love, Ms. Ephron told me. That you have power, that you can change your life, and that your life matters to the people who know you. Maybe love is flying three thousand miles, maybe love is carrying a Christmas tree, maybe love is hiding a body disguised as a Christmas tree. But you have to believe that even if it isn’t easy, it can be yours.
I am so sad that this is the end. Sad for the people who actually got to know her, sad for the writing we won’t get to read, and see. But so grateful that she was… that she was. Because she gave me so much. And there’s not much more you can ask of a person than that.