|If you ever see a Nora Ephron audiobook on the shelf at your library, grab it.|
For the last ten days I’ve been driving Owen in to San Francisco for summer art school with three other teenagers and after several failed attempts to spark conversation, I finally accepted that the ride would be silent. Dead silent. Once the kids were out of the car, I’d pop in my audiobook and things would liven right up.
I happen to be on a Nora Ephron kick. I love Nora Ephron. I’ve read all her books, some of them several times, but now I’m listening to them as narrated by Ephron herself, with her New York accent and wry intonations. They're a total delight, as fresh and vital as when I first read them.
Her final essay collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, cover a lot of territory, from interning at the Kennedy White House to Ephron's obsession with the food writer Craig Claiborne. But as the titles suggest, they deal largely with age -- the coloring of hair, buying of skin cream, mortality. I would have said these books would appeal almost exclusively to women and, in particular, women over 40, but I've changed my mind due to an unexpected, rather sweet turn of events.
On Wednesday morning, Owen was carping at me when we got into the car. I mean, he was really going at it and had been for about an hour. Usually I switch off my audiobook in the car to be courteous when he's riding with me, but he was being such a jackass, I decided I was going to leave it on as passive-aggressive punishment, force him listen to an older woman narrate a book about her wrinkly neck while we drove to pick up his carpool companions.
We pulled out of the driveway and headed down the hill. I expected complaints. None came. The car felt oddly peaceful. I glanced to see if he’d put his earbuds in, but he hadn’t. Nor was he looking at his phone. Then, to my surprise, he chuckled. He was listening to I Feel Bad About My Neck and chuckling. I wish I remembered the line that elicited that chuckle, or even the particular essay, but I can’t. I pretended I didn’t notice because were I to notice, he would have stopped immediately and tried to switch on the radio. We got to Walgreens, where we meet the other kids, and I turned off the audiobook. We drove to San Francisco in silence.
Thursday morning, Owen wasn’t carping, but I left the audiobook on anyway, to see what happened. Ephron was midway through an account of her relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, a bittersweet little masterpiece about female friendship, narcissism, age, and regret. It was the tail end of a story about someone Owen had never heard of, but he was fully absorbed. Again, I heard him chuckle. When we picked up his companion (only one this morning, a 16-year-old boy) I left the audiobook on and the three of us listened to Ephron’s story about having a restaurant meat loaf named after her. The ride was no longer silent. Nora was narrating and the boys were laughing. I’m not talking big, rollicking laughs. That would be too much to ask. But there were a good number of small, grudging, teenaged boy chuckles. We listened to Nora Ephron essays until I dropped them off.
Yesterday morning, I was down to the last, very short essays in I Remember Nothing in which Ephron notes that, at 69, she probably only has a “few good years left.” As Owen and I were driving to pick up his companions, she was listing the things she won’t miss when she’s dead: bras, Fox News, taking off her makeup, et cetera. After that, she listed those things she will miss. It was a lovely list that included her husband, her children, waffles, spring, walks in the park, and dinners with friends. It ended, simply, with “pie.” The book was over. We pulled in to the Walgreens parking lot. Owen said, “That was really sad.”
I said, “I know, and she died just a couple of years later.”
He said, “Really? So when she said she only had ‘a few good years left’ she actually only had a few years left and didn’t know it?”
I said, “I suppose. She was amazing. Such a funny writer.”
Owen said, “And sad.”
I said, “That last story was really sad.”
He said, “All the stories were sad.”
And he was right. There are a few weak, fluffy essays in these two collections, but most are witty, smart, full of life, and yet also quite poignant. I believe this is what makes them great. A lot of these essays are really, really great.
I then tried to prolong the conversation by telling Owen and his carpool companions, who soon joined us, that Nora Ephron was married to one of the reporters who cracked Watergate. None of them knew what Watergate was. I struggled to explain Watergate and then gave up. No one asked me to continue. The Nora Ephron audiobooks were over and we were back to silence.