June 29, 2012

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is mcauleyj@washpost.com

Everyone who’s anyone has written a tribute to Nora Ephron. But as moving as these statements are, they often overlook one of the most inspiring things about her: She always remembered the little people. Little people like me.

I grew up in what might be called Nora Ephron’s America — a sardonic but hopelessly bourgeois province where politics were important but never quite as important as the food. My family worshiped Nora — as we called her — in the same way that Tom Hanks, in her 1998 hit “You’ve Got Mail,” calls “The Godfather” “the I Ching, the source of all wisdom.”

In fact, her script lines became a kind of Gospel, a means of making sense of the absurdities that emerge in the trenches of bourgeois life. There are certain situations in which only Nora’s words will do, and when those situations arise, even now, we recite them. Verbatim.

Let’s say you find yourself arguing with someone who thinks it’s okay to serve, perhaps, pinot noir with salmon. They insist that “this is how it’s done in Italy.” Look no further than Carrie Fisher’s line from “When Harry Met Sally”: “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they all couldn’t possibly have good taste, could they?”

Or let’s assume you’re at someone’s house, and you’re appalled by the utter lack of any aesthetic sensibility (especially relevant if you come from Dallas). On the drive home, just recall, as my parents often do, Tom Hanks’s assessment of his father’s new wife in “You’ve Got Mail”: “Jillian studied decorating at Caesar’s Palace.”

Nora Ephron wrote best-selling books and blockbuster movies, but, in hindsight, my favorite thing she wrote is my childhood. As I got older, I was desperate to meet the person who had, in a sense, scripted so many lives and given us this incredible arsenal of mots justes.

One day in ninth grade, I sat down after school and wrote her an embarrassingly grandiose letter in which I gushed about her mastery of “the transcendent power of humor” and compared her to both Dante and Voltaire. As I didn’t have a better address for her, I sent it to her publisher.

Not surprisingly, I never heard back.

That Christmas, however, my luck changed. Somehow my dad came up with Nora’s number, called her up and, out of the blue, asked her to autograph his son’s collection of first-edition copies of every book she’d ever published. I have no idea what she thought during that telephone call, but she obliged — and even drew a little picture of a heart melting in a skillet in my copy of “Heartburn.”

I then learned, to my horror, that my parents had also sent her a few of my columns from my school newspaper, The ReMarker — including my journalistic debut, a piece in which I had railed against the school for having hired a troop of midgets to serve as Oompa Loompas at a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-themed dance. (That’s Dallas for you.) In addition to the books she signed for me, Nora also sent back a “You’ve Got Mail” poster, which she signed: “To that nut from The ReMarker, All my best, Nora Ephron.”

After that, Nora looked after me. We met in person, and she’d send me occasional notes checking in to see how I was doing and whether there was anything she could do for me. She edited my writing when she had time, and she introduced me to many of her friends, who have helped me tremendously ever since. “I have been in touch with him for years,” she told one of them. “He wrote me when he was 12 and asked me to autograph a book. Further evidence of his brilliance.”

At Harvard, when I was editing the Crimson’s opinion page, she wrote an op-ed for us in response to a piece the newspaper had published 50 years earlier that she still remembered. It had belittled Wellesley girls like her as “tunicata,” fish that swim around for a while before settling down to breed. “I thought I might call up the guy who wrote it and ask him if he’s sorry,” she wrote to me. “But why should he be? He was right.”

She even set me up on a couple of dates. One time, after she had me over for a drink, she e-mailed me a few hours later, clearly concerned: “are you looking for a nice girl? I know one. best n.”

In short, she helped me — an absolute nobody, a random kid from Texas — start becoming the person I always wanted to be. When I barged into her life, she let me stay. More than that, she always made time for me, and I know I’m not the only one. I wish I’d had the chance to say a proper thank-you.