I’m sitting in the back of a large exhibition room in some back-alley arts space, listening to the dangerous and absorbing and totally addictive rapture of Delia Ephron telling a story about working for a very mean man.
“But he wasn’t mean to me,” she said. “So I didn’t know that eventually a mean person is mean to everyone … I quit my job, and as I was walking out, he called, ‘You’re flat-chested.’ This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So I was unemployed and flat-chested. What was I going to do next?”
What she did next, and what she continues to do, was write. In her latest memoir, “Sister Mother Husband Dog,” Ephron hits upon some of the more formative events of her life.
“Writing allows you to process your life,” she said.
It’s something that’s practically ingrained in her person. The daughter of two writers, Delia seems to view writing as a fact of existence — as integral to living as breathing or sleeping. Ephron and her sisters, Nora, Amy and Hallie, had it impressed upon them that life is really just a series of stories.
“Take notes,” their mother said. “Everything is copy.”
Despite her subsequent success, Ephron admits she partially dismissed this advice. In her conversation with Ellen Sussman at Litquake, she compared a fastidious chronicler to a husband who records the delivery of his child. How ridiculous, she seems to say, that one would relinquish the present only to half-relive it later. It’s much better to live in the moment.
This is a value that manifests in “Sister Mother Husband Dog,” especially in Ephron’s essay on Nora’s death. Much of her talk at Litquake revolved around this first chapter, around her sister’s demise. On Nora, Delia said, “We borrowed lines from each other like other sisters borrow dresses.” On Delia, Nora said, “We shared half a brain.”
Put simply, to lose Nora was to lose a part of herself. It was a ubiquitous loss, one that recurs arbitrarily.
“I thought (Nora) left me enough guidance for several lives,” says Ephron, “but today I ate a kale salad … What did she think of kale? It’s a whole new world in an awful and confusing way — a city in which the street signs are missing.”
Such crude disorientation is evident in all the stories that make up Ephron’s collection. And she’s clear: These are essays about the underlying similarities in different experiences, about being human. She writes of living in a world where “the clocks keep ticking,” where we borrow from ourselves again and again, poleaxed at our own inability to understand the things we thought we knew so well. We’re just trying to answer: What’s the point?” We’re just working to find what makes us believe.
So maybe Ephron’s not unemployed. Maybe she’s been around the block — undoubtedly, one in New York — a few times. Maybe she’s a better writer.
Maybe she’s still flat-chested.