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In Other Words / Nora Ephron's legacy still inspires

Published 6:45 am, Tuesday, December 24, 2013
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It always comes back to Nora.

When Nora Ephron died in June 2012, every writer I know felt they had lost their best friend. That's because she left behind a trail of memories -- a legacy that made us all feel deprived and somewhat shaky in her absence.

That July, I wrote a column commemorating her death, or more accurately, honoring her life. Now on the rim of a new year, with a collection of her work anthologized in a book: "The Most of Nora Ephron," I am drawn back in with the same bittersweet enthusiasm.

Once you knew Nora, you couldn't quite let her go. I mean, "knew her" through her writings as I did, or, if you were lucky enough to have known her personally like my Wellesley College friend who shared dorm space with her, I'd call that privilege.

For a while after Nora's death, I talked about her so much that someone asked if we were related.

"Only in my imagination," I replied. It was my way of grieving.

Here's what Nora did for many of us: she inspired. Even now that she's gone, she has become a posthumous muse -- the gold standard of our literary expectations. Her wit was palpable.

A college writing professor once told his students to follow the lead of someone whose work they admired and considered resonant and enduring. That person would become the measuring rod by which to judge their own writing. It seemed a ridiculous notion at the time, but after being a Nora fan for so many years, I understand what he meant. We all need role models, and if we find a few along the way, it strengthens our own capacities, allowing us to dig deeper toward self-discovery.

Such was Nora, a literary diva who seduced us with her spot-on ability to sum up situations in one magnificent line: "The hardest thing about writing is writing." Or, "I don't think any day is worth living without thinking about what you're going to eat next at all times." Being that she was an avid and generous cook, who delighted in feeding others, this made perfect sense.

Nora was our modern day Dorothy Parker, an icon she herself aspired to become. "All I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker. The funny lady. The only lady at the table. The woman who made her living by her wit."

What she didn't know was that she would grow up to be the person we admired, the writer we emulated, the woman who once said: "When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you."

A few years ago at a Manhattan cocktail party, Nora stood in a corner engaged in conversation with a writer friend of mine. I could have easily walked over and snagged an introduction. As I approached, she was suddenly accosted by a group of admirers, analogous to a bunch of fawning adolescents -- the ones who stand in long theater lines waiting to have their Playbills signed by tired cast members. Not wanting to assume the role of another Nora-worshiping groupie, I simply waved to my friend and sauntered off.

"Another time," I told myself. Three years later, Nora died.

Nora often parroted her mother's famous line: "Take notes. Everything is copy." Similarly, I scribble words on cocktail napkins, envelope sleeves and even the palms of my hands, lest a germ of an idea escape without being recorded.

Had we been friends, I see it this way: We would eat lunch and complain about everything that was bothering us that day. We would talk about men and makeup, and kids and plays, the books we were reading and the problems of the world. And, of course, we'd discuss writing ad nauseum. The subject of hair would definitely come up: "Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair any more is the secret upside of death."

Such quotes depicted Nora at her best, funniest and most acerbic. They are lines that sum up the philosophy of a creative life destined for greatness.

Her sister, Delia, in her essay "Losing Norah," explains. "Writing is the only way I know to move on," she said.

Like Delia, I write now about Nora, the woman I never knew but wish I had.

Gail Collins, in her New York Times piece reports: "This is the kind of collection meant for snacking."

A new year awaits. I'm starving. Bring on the snacks.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com