Love, loss, and sisterhood

Delia XX image

Delia Ephron calls the relationship between siblings "uncivilized." Even when you're all grown up, she says, you never really act like adults around each other as you do with most other people in your life. That was certainly the dynamic between Delia and her older sister, the late writer Nora Ephron, who Delia says bossed her around all their lives. Ever since Nora's death two years ago, Delia has missed her sister dearly-even the bossy part.

To cope with her grief, Delia wrote through her pain. In the new memoir Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog (Blue Rider Press), she writes about Nora and her death, sisterhood (Delia is the second-born of four sisters, all writers), writing (both in collaboration with Nora and on her own), and being the daughter of two alcoholic screenwriters. A Jewish author, screenwriter, and playwright, Delia has written many books and the films You've Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Hanging Up, and Michael, and the play Love, Loss, and What I Wore, co-written by Nora. Delia will speak at the Women's Board of the Jewish United Fund's 2014 Women's Book and Author event on Wednesday, March 19.

Earlier this winter, JUF News sat down for a phone interview with the writer.

JUF News: What was the impetus for the book?
Delia Ephron: It was three months after Nora died, and I was so completely wiped out. I started to write every day about Nora and our relationship and sisters. It was a way for us to be together…I wrote it in six months very intensely, and it was part of processing all of the trauma.

What do you miss most about Nora?
I just miss her being a phone call away. That's what sisters are, right?

How is being a sister different than any other relationship?
They are not like relationships you have with your friends. I've always had friendships that are less complicated than my sister relationships. But at the same time being a sister prepares you for being a great girlfriend.

You write in the book that the job of a younger sister is to "differentiate, not imitate." What do you mean by that?  
When I was very young, I wanted to do everything [Nora] did and to be just like her and it didn't really cross my mind until I became a writer that my job wasn't to be like her at all. My job was to figure out who I am. One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that your writing is your fingerprint. You end up understanding how you see the world and what your stories are. I didn't really figure that out until I was in my 30s. Otherwise, as a sibling, especially as a younger sister, you go to the same schools, and you have the same teachers, and they're always getting your names mixed up. We were terribly alike. When you're alike like that, it's much harder to figure out [who you are].

You're really candid in this book-particularly about your mother's alcoholism. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much of yourself and your family?
I am really a candid person and I don't think secrets are necessarily a good thing in life. I always try to tell the truth. When you write, if you don't tell the truth, why bother? The piece in the book that was difficult for me was the one about my mother and talking about addiction and what it was like to grow up the child of my mother. I don't know if I would have written that if my mother or father were alive…But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have told you if you asked me did I have an alcoholic mother when I was in my 20s…I never thought that was a secret. As a child, it is not your job to keep your parents' secrets. That piece was the biggest journey in the book for me and the most painful and difficult. I do feel when you write about things like that, and make sense of them-not just write about them, but really try to get somewhere-that it helps other people. It makes another person less lonely.

How did being the daughter of addicts shape you?
It is a really powerful thing to be raised by a mother who is really an addict in the way my mother was. You wrestle with it your whole life. [Today,] I'm a worrier and a watcher and…I'm sure troubles are coming around the bend. I'm not the person you want in the exit row of an airplane. I'm anxious-I can go from 1 to 100 so quickly.

How is your experience different than that of your sisters?
This is my story, not my sisters' story. I have three wonderful sisters. I would never say that they experience life exactly the way I did. I think [all people] have different parents and we're born into the marriage at different times and parents deal with us differently and we deal with them differently and so we're all only children.

You write about being a writer who is Jewish as opposed to a Jewish writer. Does being Jewish inform your identity at all?

Being Jewish always informs your identity. It's a very powerful cultural heritage to have, but I didn't come from a religious family…among other things, my mother was very against organized religion. I had a strong sense of being Jewish without being a religious Jew…it was part of a philosophy of being an Ephron not to practice religion…but [there's] a shared sensibility in being Jewish.

What was dinner in the Ephron household like?
We all had dinner together a lot and, when I was young, before my family went to pieces, it was an enormous amount of fun. We'd play Charades or 20 Questions. We'd all bring our stories to the table and every time my sisters or I said something funny my dad would say, 'That's great-write it down.' They were raising writers. n

Delia Ephron will speak on Wednesday, March 19, at the Women's Board of the Jewish United Fund presents 2014 Women's Book and Author event at Green Acres Country Club in Northbrook. Breakfast will be served and dietary laws observed. For more information, call (312) 357-4821 or email:

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