Branch Library Bingo: Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog etc.

Delia Ephron

Delia Ephron

It must occasionally be difficult to be an Ephron.

There are four sisters: Nora, Delia, Amy, and Hallie.

Being a sibling is arduous, but throw stardom into the equation and you’ve got sister trouble.

Well, maybe a little.

The late Nora Ephron, author of a collection of columns about women, Crazy Salad, and the humor books I Feel Bad about My Neck and I Remember Nothing, was also a famous screenwriter and director.  My favorites of her movies are Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, both of which she co-wrote with Delia.   (Bet you didn’t know that.)

Delia, Amy, and Hallie are talented writers in their own right.

I found the “other” Ephrons through what I call “Branch Library Bingo.”  Although I buy most of my books (and remind me to stop doing that), there are some books I find through serendipity at the library.  I love Amy Ephron’s novels, and a few years ago I enjoyed her collection of essays, Loose Diamonds . . . and Other Things I’ve Lost (and Found) along the Way.

And I recently read Delia Ephron’s book of witty, gracefully-written essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), just out in paperback.

If you like Helene Hanff’s books, you might very well enjoy Delia Ephron’s latest. Although Delia is plugged in to sisterhood, Hollywood, and New York, she is also bookish.

In “Collaboration,” Delia’s brilliant essay on co-writing screenplays with Nora, she says You’ve Got Mail was an especially good match for them.

We set it in the world of books.  We both loved books, had grown up in a house where books were worshipped.  In 1996, which this was, big chain stores were putting independent booksellers out of business, which was not only personally upsetting but gave us a perfect plot for the most important romantic comedy element:  Why can’t two people be together?  In this case, he was putting her out of business.  (How quickly things change–now Amazon is destroying the chains and the independents are staging a comeback.)  We both loved children’s books.  That’s why Meg Ryan/Kathleen Kelly has a children’s bookstore.  We set the movie on the Upper West Side of New York City, where we were both then living, in the same building as a matter of fact.  To collaborate, we had only to cross a courtyard.  Also we were both crazy about The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 movie on which You’ve Got Mail was based.

sister-mother-husband-dog1 delia ephronAs a movie-goer I have never considered the difficulties of screenwriting, but Delia’s description of the process is fascinating.  She and Nora took turns at the screen.  Sometimes Delia sent Nora off to make one of her excellent sandwiches, because Nora tended to look over Delia’s shoulder, and once said “No” after two words (or perhaps it was two syllables:  I can’t find the passage).  They emailed the final product to each other at the end of the day.

Delia and her sisters grew up in Hollywood, the daughters of famous screenwriters, Henry and Phoebe Ephron.  Both parents were alcoholics.  In her moving essay, “Why I Can’t Write About My Mother, ” Delia explains what it was like to have a mother with a career who at night turned into Hyde (of Jekyll and Hyde) and drank and fought with her husband.

At 14, Delia came home from school every day and read and watched TV in the sunroom.  Once her mother stood on the top of the steps to the sunroom and said, “I hope you never tell anyone what happens here.” Delia had no idea what she meant.  The fights?

Delia and Amy sometimes diluted the liquor to attempt to control their parents.

Delia writes,

“During the day things were fairly normal.  They got tense around dinnertime, sixish, when the first glasses of Scotch on the rocks were poured.  I was always trying to read the signs, the looks between them, jerky movements.  Were they angry?  What was coming?   Would tonight be one of those nights?  Should I finish my homework just in case?  (I was very responsible, as children of alcoholics often are.)

Delia’s essays on family life are insightful and unsentimental.  In the opening essay, “Losing Nora,” Delia meditates on her relationship with Nora and her death.  During Nora’s hospitalization for leukemia, they co-wrote a TV pilot. They were very close, yet there were the inevitable sister glitches:  Nora gave wonderful gifts, but sometimes returned Delia’s gifts to the store.  Once Delia bought a backpack purse for Nora, and then bought it herself after Nora returned it.

One of the most difficult things about the death of a famous person, she says, is that everyone thinks he or she owns that death.   Strangers commiserate with Delia, and then she must console them.

There is so much artificial intimacy these days, it’s not surprising there is postmortem intimacy.  The ubiquitous Facebook–full of real friends and fake friends.  All that thumbs up–it’s as if one is living in a perpetual cheering squad.

Some of the essays are humorous.  I loved “If My Dad Could Tweet”:  her father died in 1992, but she says he was “an uproar man” who would have been keen on tweeting.   He telephoned her at all hours of the day and night to gossip.  Once he called to say Nora had won the Pulitzer, and then he hung up.  (He got it wrong.)  She says that “mostly he was into bragging.”

In one of my favorite essays, “Upgrade Hell,” she writes about upgrades of Microsoft Word, iPhones, etc.,  that seldom improve life.  We’ve all been through it.

Delia Ephron’s writing is  clear and plain, and there are many outright brilliant passages.  I’m adding this to my Best of the Year sidebar.  By the way, she is also a novelist.

I was at my branch library yesterday.  It is the Amy and Hallie Ephron branch.  Delia and Nora are downtown…