Last night, my best friend and I went to see the enchanting and poignant Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron‘s stage-adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book by the same name. Like each of the five women on stage, I can peer into my wardrobe and hang on the clothes and shoes and handbags bulging from it, some of the most important moments of my life. Especially my boots. There are my favorite brown leather boots with the beautiful patina, worn with an attitude the morning I was fired by someone who might possibly have been great were it not for the misogyny that made him so small. Admittedly, it was not the best way to start a day, but it gave me a distinct pleasure to turn on the heel of those well-worn boots and walk away from him. Forever. Then there are the boots of patchwork leather that my mother gave me; they make me feel like Carly Simon in anticipation of a date with Cat Stevens circa 1971. There are the boots I wore the first time we took Sophie to see the snow, the classic Frye boots that I simply could not pass up because they were on sale and at a consignment store, the pointy-toed suede knee-high boots that have been re-soled twice and require additional assistance and effort from my husband to remove from my tired and swollen feet at the end of a long day. Finally, there are all those pairs of black boots that vary only in length. For those of you living in cooler climes, there is perhaps a sixty day window for honest boot-wearing in Phoenix, Arizona. Seriously. The sunshine is relentless, and I offer no justification for my growing collection of boots.
Nor can I explain the coats, each one purchased in Ireland and carried back to one of the hottest places in America, where there is rarely the need for a sweater let alone a coat – other than to make a statement about how the heat won’t stop me from being my own girl, complete with scarf and coat, and even a turtleneck underneath. I even have a pair of gloves, although those were purchased in anticipation of a winter work trip to Santa Fe, also with my best friend, during which we froze and had to buy hats at the Gap. I think she may even have bought an extra pair of boots, and I think they might even have been purple . . .
During the Christmas holidays, I always wear the long red coat I bought at Marks and Spencers one year in Belfast. I don’t care if it is 80 degrees; that coat is a stunner, is it not? Particularly against the backdrop of a holiday tree made of a triangle of pots of jolly red poinsettias outside Saks Fifth Avenue at the Biltmore Fashion Park. And, it makes me feel a bit like Santa, deciding who’s been naughty or nice or both.
Along with the boots, and the Bridge vintage leather Gladstone doctor’s bag – which I bought on Ebay and have not been able to open for several years because the brass clasp is broken – hiding in a corner of the closet, is a pair of burgundy leather penny loafers, with a penny in each. I haven’t worn them since 1989. Why are they still there? Sentimental reasons, I’m sure. Perhaps they reminded me of the brogues we once wore to school or Irish dancing, or maybe I was influenced by the collegiate style of a fifth-grade American girl wearing khakis from the Gap, white socks, and her grandmother’s loafers.
Given where I am this morning – still 50, still with cancer and still with nothing to wear to work – having already flung on the bed seven summery skirts that are too snug at the waist because of a diet that has deteriorated in recent months (too many nights out at the movies with my best friend) and an exercise regimen duly abandoned. I feel a bit like Meryl Streep‘s married character getting ready for a clandestine New York city rendezvous with Robert de Niro’s character, also married (but to someone else) in one of my favorite movies, Falling in Love. For me, in the end, something blue wins; it always does. Even Meryl settles on a blue print blouse. In my case, it is the blue dress I’m also wearing in every profile picture on all my online spaces. Thus, if I encounter any of my Facebook friends today, they might think I have nothing else to wear. They would be right of course.
How I laughed and sighed, and even cried a little, as I recognized my mother, my daughter, my best friend, and myself in the stories that flew from the stage last night – tales of highly sought-after and completely impractical designer handbags (which increase in size and price, the older we get), the various layers of “slimming” apparel – in black, of course – high heels and high drama, bunions and ballet flats. (Incidentally, to her horror, my best friend’s podiatrist had the gall to suggests shoes from The Walking Company as opposed to a shot of Cortisone for pain. In retaliation, she is seeing a new podiatrist next week to whom she will lie a little, saying that, yes, she has been wearing the custom orthotic so can she please have the shot, because she is NOT going to buy shoes from The Walking Company). She is in her prime, after all, but short, a petite woman who “needs” the height. In fact, at one point, she had a million dollar idea to accommodate those concert-goers under 5″5″ – the expand-a-fan has yet to make it big, but you never know.
Then there were glimpses of all those things that, at some point, seemed so essential in a wardrobe as well as all those unessential and unforgivable things we keep saying to our daughters “Are you going to go out in that?” or “What did you do to your hair?”
In spite of the appreciative laughter that rippled through the Scottsdale Center for the Arts last night, there was a yearning. Something was missing – Nora Ephron herself. It made me sad to think of her no longer here to go back and forth with us through the stages and closets well-known to us all. From shoulder pads and big hair, to pant-suits and Brazilian blow-outs, and then, invariably and for comfort’s sake, to Eileen Fisher, which feels a bit like The End, or as one of the women mused last night – “When you start wearing Eileen Fisher, you might as well say, ‘I give up.’ You might as well . . .
It was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, a cancer she had kept private from a world that already knew many of the intimate details about the backs of her elbows, her 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.
In my mind’s eye, Ephron is striding across a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village where all her books were almost sold out the morning after she died. She is suggesting a direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. I like to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, surrounded by books, as in the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, charmingly resurrected and rewritten by Nora and her sister, Delia, as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Between the words of the Ephron sisters nd the pair’s natural chemistry, Hollywood had a recipe for success in the romantic comedy genre. Although a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart, so it would have been poetic had she been handed 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.
Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but those films are such a big part of the soundtrack to my American life as a woman who immigrated to this country round about the time “When Harry met Sally.” Granted, it is not the most memorable part of the movie, but there’s one scene that never fails to make me laugh and snap 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 there is to become who I am supposed to be, because, as I have learned, life happens in the twinkling of an eye.
In the scene, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married, and tearfully, she tells Harry that she is going to be left on the shelf, a spinster, alone at forty. Mind you, at the time she is barely thirty, with a very cute hair cut that, at the time, I was sure would work with naturally curly hair. It didn’t. In fact, I carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe ten – a page from a magazine featuring the many cute haircuts of Meg Ryan. I really did. And, for countless hairdressers rendered clueless by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page, as though it were the Shroud of Turin, and politely asked them to give me one of those cute haircuts. Not until I turned 50 and found Joanne at Mane Attraction, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before. Too many times, perhaps.
And I’m gonna be 40 . . . someday
Just yesterday I felt the same way. Forty was a lifetime away from eighteen, and by all accounts the deadline for “letting oneself go” and, I suppose, Eileen Fisher. Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses for hair – not jeans. Seventy was out of the question, and definitely not a new fifty. Having passed the half-century mark myself, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my thirties behind me, my forties too, I am accepting a couple of truths about myself. Some are minor – I do not have sensible hair and I talk too much. Others are more painful. I should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power and recognize earlier those women who are nice to me only because they need something from me. Like my hair, each performs poorly when the pressure rises.
Being fifty is a bit 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 that might turn up on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. At fifty, I know who loves me and who loves me not.
None of this self-awareness in any way diminishes how much I resent the aging process in general and the way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One minute, I am reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at Marshalls or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the past forty years than on something as wholly graceless as aging. Incidentally, my husband and I went to see Fleetwood Mac in Phoenix last week, and there was a fleeting moment of something like melancholy in catching a white-haired Mick Fleetwood bow out and off stage in his bright red hat, pointed red shoes, and the dangling wooden balls, and Stevie Nicks still mesmerizing just like the white winged dove sings a song. Stevie, at sixty-five, still spinning in black. Rock on gold dust woman.
Black. Black is so great that it is the envy of all the other colors, with navy and brown even declaring themselves the new black. As we all know, black isn’t even black sometimes. For instance, The little black dress is not the same color as the black blazer (wardrobe staple) that I want to wear with black pants on a “fat day.” The blacks don’t match. One is a dark-greyish black, the other a bluish-purplish black. I love black, but unless you are Stevie Nicks in an air-conditioned theater, it is not the color for Phoenix in the summer, which ironically is Stevie’s hometown. Phoenix is hot. Searingly so, beginning in June. When you add to that, the boiling but brief hot flashes that come free with the drug that’s supposed to keep my cancer at bay, my beloved black is unbearable in the 110 degree summer days which also make any form of physical exercise unappealing. I have barely walked the length of myself since the thermometer reached 100 degrees. Then again, this could be attributed to the lethargy that a year or two ago would have been foreign to me. A flat-out fatigue – the only ‘f’ word that offends me these days – has been my constant companion since cancer barged in. Perhaps it was the Tamoxifen or is now the Arimidex that is taking its toll. I have even taken to writing things down because my once stellar powers of recall (in spite of what my brother says) have begun to show signs of weakness. Oh, how I used to scoff at makers of lists. Another of life’s little ironies. Finally – for now – there is 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. It’s not quite time to call in a camera crew, 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 saved every drawing, handprint, book report, birthday card, report card, and, apparently, every receipt from Target. 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 (a year ago) began “organizing,” but with no real sense of urgency. I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work and special photographs, I threw away greeting cards that were made not by her but some stranger 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.
I don’t know what or who inspired it. I love the leggy and winking 29 year old, hand on her hip, but I am almost afraid to ask what happened to her. I wonder what Nora Ephron would think of my little girl’s “mountain of life.” I can almost see a wry smile creep across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up for Act Two, to 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)