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Gifts from Nora: A Remembrance

My first copy of Austen, inspired for purchase by Joe Fox and curiosity.

The thing I remember most about the summer that my grandfather died was that each morning, my mother would get up at an ungodly hour and watch You’ve Got Mail. Thus I associated Nora Ephron with grief long before her untimely death at the age of 71 this week.

I never met her, but she was my sister, at least in the collegiate sense.We were Wellesley graduates almost fifty years apart, united by a history, a sense of camaraderie, and the inevitable complaints about too many rules and the lack of good food on campus. I hope she would have liked me, as I aspired to be a funny, honest, wry sort of person, with varying levels of success at each. I know I would have liked her, as she was a living montage of the things I’ve loved and wanted to be over the last two decades. Her cultural capital was unmatched, and she had a way of seamlessly integrating this personal iconography into her films, her books, and her conversation, all without sounding priggish or the least bit overexposed.

She was witty. She was smart. She was who I hoped to become—who I hope to become, even now.

One of the things drilled into us at Wellesley is the power of our alumnae network. These women want you to succeed, and they’ll do anything they can to help you as you make your way into the world. The one way I can eulogize Nora Ephron properly is to explain how she helped me, even without knowing who I was, or who I was to become. Through her work and life, she gave me pearls of wisdom—gifts that will never be forgotten, at least not by me. Some are small, some are frivolous, some are nonsensical. But they’ve become woven into the fabric of my being, and it would be ungrateful to let her passing simply slip by without any sort of recognition.

***

The Power of Words: Nora Ephron was the daughter of screenwriters, a journalist at heart and a wordsmith extraordinaire. She didn’t just use words; she revered them, choosing each one more carefully than the one before. It was an art form, watching the casual tone in which she wrote and spoke, with the content displaying an overwhelming command of the English language.  Words have the power to hurt, to heal, to bond, to change people’s minds. In her films, at least one character undergos a moment where something he or she say has a profound impact on a loved one or soon-to-be loved one: Kathleen Kelly’s stand against Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, Sam Baldwin’s “magical” radio interview in Sleepless in Seattle, Harry’s final ode to Sally’s quirks. Words are important, wherever you end up in life. The smallest phrase or longest diatribe can uplift or damn or anything in between. Words are things we throw away too easily, and with the advent of online media they become cheaper and cheaper. Make your words costly, and imbue them with a sense of gravity. You never know who is listening. You never know who is reading.

The Power of Laughter: I wish I could be as funny as Nora Ephron. There are a thousand and one things that I’ve said in my life that people have laughed at. I can take credit for about a fourth of them, with another fourth going to various television shows and books and films. The remaining half belongs to Ephron, I’m sure. There are moments that she creates, with or without words, that are golden. Laughter can be a universal language. I remember moments when a joke could break the tension, turning strangers into comrades and facilitating so much more than solemnity ever could. The times I’ve laughed at Ephron’s films were shared with friends and family. They were moments that became memories.

Bonus point: The five words in the English Language that can unite an entire room in peals of laughter? “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The Power of Love: Though “love” may not be the correct word to use here, Ephron’s characters became my odd, childish (and not so childish) crushes: Joe Fox and Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks),  Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), and the surname-less Greg (Victor Garber) and his emotional ode to The Dirty Dozen. Ephron herself was married three times, finding something lasting and true in her final marriage to writer Nicholas Pileggi. As she whimsically observed in her six-word memoir: “Secret to life: marry an Italian.” But love, in its most base sense, became the thread that held these movies together. Love between friends, love for family, new love, old love, toxic love, love that’s passed you by. Love drives so much of what we do, whether we realize it or not. Ephron realized it.

Jane Austen: It seems odd to mention dear Jane in such a fashion; yet without Nora Ephron, I would never have found her novels so quickly. That fateful You’ve Got Mail summer, I spent a lot of time with my mother, watching the film from whatever point I rolled out of bed and into our living room. With my routine like clockwork, I came out, almost every day, at the same point: Joe “NY152” Fox (Hanks) is meant to meet with his internet penpal—known to him only as “Shopgirl”—and quickly finds out that she is Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the children’s bookstore owner, putting a snag in his conglomerate’s attempted takeover of the business. She attempts to avoid him by hiding behind a book—Pride and Prejudice—but the snide Fox, defensive of this perceived folly and unwilling to reveal his online identity, takes a swipe at Austenites everywhere:

Joe : I bet you read that book every year. I bet you just love that Mr. Darcy. And your sentimental heart just beats wildly at the thought he and well, you know, whatever her name is, are truly, honestly going to end up together.

After hearing the name repeated over and over for weeks on end, I had to wonder: who is this Mr. Darcy and why does he make Kathleen go atwitter? So I found a copy and never looked back. Rewatching the film over and over, I see the keen parallels to Austen, just as Helen Fielding did with Bridget Jones’ Diary. From there, I jumped to Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and darling Emma, but Nora started it all. Who knows how long it would have taken without her?

***

It would be disingenuous to say I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Nora Ephron. But in truth, she features in various moments of my life, both joyous and sad. She made her mark during my tenth summer, yet she was never the harbinger of grief; rather, the solace from it.

As I move farther away from my life as a Wellesley student and venture into the land of alumnae, I understand more and more the concept of helping out the younger generations. This can be done in several ways; there is the direct advisory position, and there is the realization that your life, however you choose to live it, can be living testimony. From what I understand and what I’ve experienced, Nora had a hand in both. -Hannah

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2012 by .
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