19 June 2019

Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia Ephron



I found this book at one of my favourite used bookstores in Florida (Sandman Book Co.) for only a few dollars about a year ago and instantly snatched it up. I love Nora Ephron and her writing, but I hadn't read anything by her sister Delia with whom she used to co-write screenplays. I have an affinity for these lonely-feeling, middle-aged, dog-loving female memoirs, so while this book wasn't anything particularly unique for me, I really loved reading it.

While Nora was objectively the most famous Ephron sister, Delia is a writer too, and the two worked on a lot of projects together. Having read work by both sisters, they have very similar styles and senses of humour. Delia even writes about how they would steal lines from each other. However, Delia worked on her own projects independently as well. She's written a number of novels, and helped adapt the screenplay for The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Delia wrotre this particular book shortly after Nora's death and you can tell a lot of this writing is part of Delia's grief process.

This book is written in essay format and Delia devotes the first essay of this book to her late sister Nora, which was appropriate and relevant but not overboard. She talks about their complicated relationship, in that they weren't friends per se but they were also best friends??? Can't all sisters relate to this? They worked together on a lot of big writing projects, including the screenplay for You've Got Mail and a successful broadway play called Love, Loss, and What I Wore. I so badly want to see this play one day. She outlines the ways her and Nora were different, but also how much each one needed the other's strengths. She reflects on being irritated when Nora stole her lines, but how she would subconsciously steal Nora's lines as well... I felt it was a very accurate representation of two sisters who work together, and it just goes to show how a lot of sisterhoods are the same.

I spent my life turning all my girlfriends into sisters; perhaps easier, more relaxed versions of my relationships with my sisters, surely warmer, more supportive versions of my mother. I confided more safely and intimately in my closest girlfriends. When my husband got cancer... Nora and I rarely discussed it. Isn't that odd? I couldn't, because I was always trying to prove my bravery, and she didn't ask, perhaps respecting my privacy, perhaps relieved not to know. I have no idea. It's one of those weird things that make no sense. How could we be so devoted and not talk about the most earth-shattering thing in my life? But sister relationships are quirky, all family relationships are. Some things are proof of nothing, and some are proof of everything. This is complication, trying to understand how we were close. Losing her is like losing an arm, it's that deranging. But in regard to the daily pains of my life, the fears, the anxieties, the worries, I relied on my husband and my friends. Nora didn't have the patience I needed. She didn't allow herself any moping or self-pity. I like a good mope now and then."

I loved the above quote in particular and feel it really hits the nail on it's head. In thinking about my own sister, we are so deeply different and we bicker incessantly, but she's one of the only people I can sit around the house and do nothing with for actual days. The only other person I have this relationship with is Meghan, and we are abnormal for friends who just met in their Masters I would say. I think Delia highlights this relationship dynamic really well. I felt it was a really perfect tribute to her sister.

The intimacy wasn't the intimacy of I'll tell you what I'm really feeling, but was the intimacy of I'll open your refrigerator and take whatever I want."

One of my favourite essays was about her mother and alcoholism. Both her parents had drinking problems when she was young and she is able to articulate how difficult it is to balance the mother she knew in public versus the mother she knew privately in the evenings. I have been lucky not to be intimately involved with anyone who's suffered from alcoholism (that I know of), but the below quote is so descriptive that I almost feel like I understand:

My poor mother. I'm sure she terrified herself. She was disassembling nightly. She was human global warming- norms replaced by extremes. My mother's drinking was so overwhelming that I didn't notice the obvious: that my dad was drinking, too."

It's a very sad essay, and I'm sure it was a sad time for their family. Nobody wants to "disassemble nightly" in front of their children, I'm sure. She talks a lot about how differently each of her sisters handled it as well, noting that certain ages made you more or less vulnerable to alcoholism's effects.

All siblings have different parents. We are all born at different times in our parents' marriage. Parents do not treat their children identically, much as they might imagine they do or strive to, and children bond or not and relate differently to each parent."

I think there was a further sadness to the essay because Delia alludes to feeling a lot of pressure from her mother even beyond the drinking. Their mom, Pheobe, was also a playwright and a screenplay writer and she was very firm that her daughters would work and be successful in their own rights. Family conversations constantly centered around writing, and saving 'good lines' for future projects. I think in a way this sounds fun but I can also imagine how exhausting this could be. Add a nightly drinking problem to the equation and I think this would really dampen your childhood.

Delia Ephron (left) and her late sister Nora Ephron (right)


Another topic Delia discusses which I really liked was her divorce. She reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert in the way she marries a traditional banker-type dude really young and regrets the conservative life she's chosen for herself. Eventually, and through the freedom her writing provides her, they get a divorce. In most books divorces are made to be these sad, messy phases of life, and I'm sure they almost always are, but Delia doesn't write about her time in bed spent eating pints of ice-cream, and instead chooses to focus on the weight she felt lifted from her shoulders. I mostly like to read about people being miserable, but I appreciated Ephron's refreshing take.

There is something fantastic about getting divorced. Everyone should do it to experience the extraordinary sense of freedom after being in marriage jail. I take that back... Divorce is a catastrophe under many circumstances, like if you have children. Or if you don't want it. Or have no money. Just to name a few. But if you do want it and you're (still) young: adventure, passion awaits."

She then goes on to talk about how empowering it was to live in NYC immediately post-divorce, still in her twenties. It's almost enough to make you want to move there. I'm in my late twenties now, officially. I am constantly riding the line of "I had a great twenties" and "there's still a lot I want to do in my twenties" and I know turning 30 will be especially hard for me. I loved the below quote about what your twenties are meant to be. I've found it comforting.

My twenties were one big walkabout. There is, on television, a series called Girls about young women floundering in their twenties.... [Lena Dunham] captures the very special misery of being in your twenties. Of being clueless, desperate, lost. Looking for love, settling for crazy. Grabbing at solutions, just not to your problem. Being in your twenties has changed a lot since I was in my twenties, but it is still a time when everything awful happens in a romantic way, even if you don't admit it (and you can't admit it because then you would be less important in the tragedy you're starring in, your own life)... because in your twenties you know, even if you don't admit this either, even if this is buried deep in your subconscious, that you can waste an entire decade and still have a life."

You can waste an entire decade and still have a life. My twenties were fantastic in a lot of ways. Meghan and I spent two years frolicking around London, going to movies and concerts and full weekends of binging television shows. I dated a real loser who ate up a few good years of my life but who I think about often because he was SUCH a piece of shit and I am always coming back to lessons I learned from that relationship. Like she said, everything awful happens in a romantic way, even if you don't admit it. I went on a lot of cool trips, tried a lot of new hobbies, strengthened all of my real friendships and severed some of the ones that weren't good for me. I really felt like I grew into myself. My twenties were a walkabout, but I still consider them a success. Still, there's always the fear that I've wasted a lot of time, that I'm not where I want to be professionally, financially, creatively, etc. I know it's not just me that sometimes feels like it's too late to go back to school, pivot careers, build a new relationship, make new friends, etc. But it's not. I needed Delia to tell me I can waste an entire decade and still have a life.

Overall I really liked this but I will repeat that it's nothing groundbreaking. If you've read nonfiction by her sister Nora, or even anything by Abigail Thomas, the themes and style will be very familiar to you. Personally, I sort of enjoyed reading from the perspective of the less famous sister. I'm very interested in sibling dynamics and I think the way Delia writes about Nora gives a lot away about their familial and working relationships.

There are a lot of bits in this book that I know I'll think about for a long time, which is how I know it was a good read. I appreciated Delia's realistic and honest insights into things we often idealize: our twenties, the good life, having it all, to name a few. I will end with this below quote that I thought was really smart.

To me, having it all- if one wants to define it at all- is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse... It might be a fleeting moment- drinking a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning when the light is especially bright. It may also be a few undisturbed hours with a novel I'm in love with, a three-hour lunch with my best friend, reading Goodnight Moon to a child, watching a Nadal-Federer match. Having it all definitely involves an ability to seize the moment... It can be eating in bed when you're living on your own for the first time or the first weeks of a new job when everything is new, uncertain, and a bit scary. It's when all your senses are engaged. It's when you feel at peace with someone you love. And that isn't often. Loving someone and being at peace with him (or her) are two different things. Having it all are moments in life when you suspend judgement. It's when I attain that elusive thing called peace of mind. Not particularly American, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, different for everyone, but you know it when you have it."

No comments:

Post a Comment