when Nora Ephron died

July 18, 2012

Image…was, appropriately enough, a black turtleneck and black leggings: black for mourning, the absence of color the symbol of loss and a mark of respect. Appropriate also, because Ms Ephron herself said — this was in her essay, ‘What I Wish I’d Known’  — You can’t own too many black turtlenecks. They hide the crepey thing that starts happening under your chin.

Sadly, the turtleneck I had on when I read about her deathwould not have passed muster with Ms Ephron, who was, despite a neat line in self-deprecation, really rather chic. I’m willing to bet her turtlenecks were nicely fitted, with a couple of tucks here and there and just the right amount of fold to the collar. Mine is a baggy old thing from Lands’ End. It belongs to my mother-in-law and is now in my possession due to a complicated series of events involving boats, laundry, rain and the Caledonian Canal. My mother-in-law is six feet tall. On her, the shirt was crisp and jaunty: the matriarch as preppy. On me, it looks like a maternity dress that shrank in the wash and when I run – it’s my jogging top  – it flaps around like a loose sail, undermining my wind resistance.

Looking at the last paragraph, I see I wrote the phrase, when I read about her death, as if it were just another piece of news, one more predictably bleak item on the net. But it wasn’t like that; it was certainly bleak but it was also a total surprise, at least for me. I did not know Nora Ephron had been battling leukemia for years. That it had rendered her susceptible to an opportunistic infection. She developed pneumonia and, in her vulnerable state, couldn’t fight it off, couldn’t recover.

My immediate response to this information was a kind of Spock-like irritation: the situation struck me as highly illogical. Chemo is supposed to cure cancer. Antibiotics are supposed to kill bacteria.  Nora Ephron is supposed to keep writing.

She is also supposed to continue maintaining our imaginary close personal friendship.

It’s interesting how quickly mourning reveals its true nature, which is essentially selfish. In an instant, She’s gone transmutes into I can’t believe what’s been taken from me.

And what’s been taken from me with the death of Ms Ephron is the prospect of more: more of her essays, maybe a second novel. Quoting from the Ephron oeuvre is one of my party tricks and people are tired of hearing me recount her diagnosis of a little known but all-pervasive masculine disorder called Refrigerator Blindness. It’s a classic, but I need to refresh my routine. She’s meant to be helping me with that. I want more of her recipes as well. For example, I love her vinaigrette. It is, as she claimed, perfect; I mainlined it throughout my pregnancy. It’s time she supplied me with a new culinary obsession.

As you can see, Ms Ephron was, is – I ‘m not ready to embrace the past tense yet – what I’d call a familiar.

Of course, we’ve never actually met. Nonetheless, we’ve enjoyed an on-going dialogue for some time now. Our conversations are absorbing and intricate, full of detail and revelations and set entirely in my head. They’re the grown-up version of what I had with my Barbie doll. At various times, she — Ms Ephron, not Barbie — and I have discussed books, shoes, the extent to which Barack Obama has disappointed us, the significance of his wife’s arms and the British class system. The last topic is one of the few where I have had more to say than Ms Ephron, and a degree more authority. Every now and then, when I’m feeling brave, I read her something I’ve written.

Which brings me to the most detailed imaginary exchange I’ve ever conducted with Ms Ephron. It concerns the co-incidental (co-incidental being the key word here) similarities between my blog and a play she wrote. I’ve never seen this play. In fact, given I’ve lived in England for a number of years, it’s very existence pretty much passed me by. Ms Ephron’s play is called, ‘Love, Loss and What I wore’. My blog, for those of you whose attention might have wandered, is called ‘What I was wearing’.

This particular conversation usually starts with her saying something like:  Hmm. This is odd. Here you have this blog where you use clothing as a device to start a story about something that happened to you. And here I have this play, on Broadway no less, about the events in my life and what I was wearing at the time.

(I’m guessing that’s what her play is about; as I can’t emphasize enough, I’ve never seen it.)

She continues in this vein:  You say you love my work and you’ve read pretty much everything I’ve written. Do you really think it’s a coincidence we both came up with basically the same idea?

She goes on to accuse me, very amusingly of course, of plagiarism. Things get a tad heated. Then — this is the high point of the fantasy – I pull out the dusty stack of journals I’ve been writing for the past 20 years. (The conversation is imaginary but the journals are real.)  I open up one of them at random and proceed to show her What I was wearing, January 1994, What I was wearing, March 1996, entry after entry, each with its little drawing. There is a certain amount of gasping, in awe, I believe.

We flip through the journals, reading choice bits aloud.

Then we braid each other’s hair.

We don’t really braid each other’s hair. I just threw that in for fun.

I haven’t quite sorted out how the scenario resolves itself, whether Nora – we’re on a first name basis by now – says, bit of a snippy edge to her voice, All right. It’s clear we’ve been operating in parallel universes, or, admittedly this is stretching it a bit, she looks up from the page she’s reading and says, simply: Yours is so much better than mine.

It’ll come to me eventually.

The funny thing is, I can hear the dialogue, our words and inflections but I can’t, for once, remember what I am wearing.

Nora Ephron. R.I.P.