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I was sad to read this week, that, in the end, it was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, cancer she had kept private in a world that already knew many of the intimate details of Nora’s aging neck, her dry skin, her small breasts about which she wrote in A Few Words About Breasts, the contents of her purse, and her weapon of choice against not only the gray hair that grows back with a vengeance but the youth culture in general – hair color. With a quick and daring wit, she regaled us with stories of the many indignities visited upon her as she grew older, but she did not tell us about the cancer.

Selfish, perhaps, but in my mind’s eye I like to think of Ephron striding fearlessly across the set, to suggest a direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. Between her words and the pair’s natural chemistry, Hollywood had a recipe for sweet success in the romantic comedy genre. Although a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart.  It would have been poetic indeed had she experienced a happy ending like those she crafted in those fail-proof feel-good “chick flicks,” but it would not have been real, and Nora Ephron liked to keep it real. I like to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, on a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village yesterday morning, where all her books were almost sold out. It reminded me of the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, resurrected by the talented writing of the Ephron sisters and rewritten as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.  Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but her films are such a part of the soundtrack to my own life as a woman who immigrated to America round about the time “When Harry met Sally.” 

Granted, it may not be the most memorable part of the movie, but there’s one scene that never fails to make me laugh and snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who shows up now and again to remind me just how little time I really have, because as I have learned, things really do happen in the twinkling of an eye. In it, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out her ex-boyfriend is getting married, and tearfully, she realizes she is going to be lonely at 40, left on the shelf, a spinster. Mind you, at the time she is barely 30.

And I’m gonna be 40 . . . someday

Just yesterday I felt the same.  40 was a lifetime away from 18 and by all accounts the deadline for letting oneself go. 50 was sensible and dowdy. 60 heralded blue rinses for hair not jeans. 70 was out of the question, and definitely not the new 50.  Facing the half-century mark myself, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my 30s behind me, my 40s have found me accepting a couple of truths about myself – namely that I have naturally curly hair, and I really should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power. Both are difficult and perform poorly when the pressure rises. On some levels, facing fifty is a little like going to IKEA, one of my least favorite places on the planet. A planet itself, IKEA is just too big, with all its “rooms” requiring instructions and assembly and all those random Scandinavian words which I find as intimidating as they had fallen from the lips of an errant Viking. I’m worried that I might run out of time to do the things I need to do. Not necessarily the kinds of things found on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. That is important now.

I must admit to resenting this whole aging process. The way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One moment, I can be reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the 25 pairs of cheap readers I bought at Marshalls.  My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the years than on something as wholly graceless as aging. I’m blaming the heat for my new-found reluctance  to go out for a run. I have barely walked the length of myself since the thermometer reached 100 degrees. It might be more to do with a kind of lethargy that is quite foreign to me. Could it be the flat-out fatigue that has been my constant companion since cancer barged in? Perhaps Tamoxifen is taking its toll. I have even taken to writing things down because my once stellar powers of recall have begun to show signs of weakness. Oh, how I used to scoff at makers of lists. Another of life’s little ironies. Then there’s the wildly embarrassing forgetting of names, the names of people I see every single day, the names of people I forget on days that might be the most important of their lives.

 I have digressed a little, as befits a woman of my age. Those of you who know me know that along with my irrational fear of car-washes and drowning (although not at the same time), is the even greater fear of becoming a hoarder whose secret life will be the subject of an A&E documentary. I don’t think it’s time to call in a camera crew just yet, but I may be a future contender, given my chronic aversion to throwing things away. Since before my child started school – over a decade ago –  I have saving every drawing, handprint, book report, science experiment, birthday card, report card. Not in one place, of course. Stuffed in vases and between the pages of books are random letters from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and her grandparents. There are even pieces of notebook paper that bear only her name in the top right corner. So in the spirit of those ever-so organized professional organizers on TV, those who would have me put everything on the front yard before organizing it into piles of things that should be stored, displayed, or dumped, it is time to tame the paper tiger. Full of good intentions, I recently began “organizing,” but with no real sense of urgency. I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work, I threw away greeting cards that were made not by her but by someone at Hallmark, I filled a box with books to donate to the local bookstore, and then while flipping through the pages of a school composition book, I came upon something my daughter had written when she was very little.

“Over the Hill” by Sophie

I don’t know what or who inspired it, but I have to wonder what Nora Ephron would have thought of my little girl’s “mountain of life.”  I can almost see a wry smile creeping across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up and go cause some trouble, just as she urged a bunch of Wellesley graduates in her 1996 Commencement Speech:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your life . . .

RIP Nora Ephron (1941 – 2012)