In light of Nora Ephron’s passing yesterday at the age of 71, I felt a desire to pay tribute to the journalist/writer/director in some way. As a female writer it’s important to honor the careers of women who you admire, who inspire you in how to craft your own career. Click around the web and you’ll find it saturated with life lessons, quotes from her books and movies, scenes we should remember. I could give you another roundup like that. There are at least 10 lines from “When Harry Met Sally” that come up in my conversations regularly. Baby fish mouth, anyone? But that doesn’t feel sufficient to me. What specifically do I want to thank Nora Ephron for? For giving me permission to order my dressing on the side? For being one of the first women to write a personal essay about her breasts? For launching a writing career using autobiographical material? Yes, but still, it’s more than that.
Last night, after hearing news of Ephron’s passing, I was unable to think of anything else. I was finishing my second glass of wine at a birthday dinner for a good, male friend. I looked across the table at him. He smiled at me in this way that only he can, in a way that feels really comforting. A new thought came automatically.
He could be the guy I end up with.
Why did I think this? As a single 30-something, with a complicated romantic history, to say I am hopeless about love would be an overstatement, to say I am hopeful, an understatement. I don’t really believe my friend is the guy I’ll end up with. But he could be. You never know.
“When Harry Met Sally,” one of Ephron’s films, gave me permission to believe that. Nora Ephron reminded me to look in my own backyard for love. But that wasn’t the heart of her message, that if you’re single and over it, you should shack up with your best friend. That’s reductive. And I probably shouldn’t; he has serious commitment issues now that I think about it. Ephron’s true message, I believe, and a theme that ran through her body of work, is that love grants everyone a second, third, or even fourth chance.
Whatever mistakes you’ve made or tragedies you’ve survived, there’s room for you, oh marginalized one, on the love boat. The love model that my parents and grandparents have demonstrated for me — meet your soul mate in high school, get married, have kids, stay married until death do you part — has long since become obsolete for me. I am twice the age my mom was when she met my dad. (Writing that makes me feel funny.) I know that this is not the norm for most families nowadays, but it’s the reality in my family, and, oddly enough, it’s society’s favorite unrealistic ideal. Trust me, this is just as confusing for me to try to untangle as the sentence is for you to decode.
But back to Nora Ephron. What I was drawn to about her voice, was that she wasn’t afraid to expose this ideal version of love as a crock. She gave us alternative “falling in love” models to look to. You may find her models to be unrealistic too. Hey, maybe they were. She wrote many rom-coms, after all. But underneath the shiny surface of the happy-endings-that-have-to-be, Nora was doing something subversive and wonderful, she was championing non-traditional love. If you are the eternal single, have been cheated on while pregnant, gotten divorced, have had a partner pass away, you are not damaged goods! Ephron has hope to offer you.
As a sex and relationships writer, this is the thing I want to thank Nora for. The acknowledgement that you don’t get one chance at love — that your love life can be complicated, messy, full of failures, seemingly as dead as dead can be. And then, in a moment of grace, your love star can rise again from the ashes, maybe not as shiny as it once was, but still with some sparkle. It may come in the form of a friend that smiles at you across the table, or an e-mail from a stranger. You never know. You don’t have to have a clean and neat and easy past to have it. And you don’t need to be clean and neat and easy person to earn it.
Nora Ephron taught me to believe that love is for all of us. Not just the lucky. But the unlucky, too.