HALLIE EPHRON: On this Mother's Day, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts about the complicated person who was my mother.
When people ask about what it was like growing up in a family of writers, I tell them about her. Phoebe Wolkind Ephron was first generation, her mother just off the boat from Russia and pregnant with her older brother Hal (whom I am not named after, she assured me). She cracked wise like Dorothy Parker and looked like Katharine Hepburn. She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party of America’s candidate for president. She hated to shop, didn’t do housework, and never chatted on the phone or met friends for lunch.
She’d had to quit work when she was pregnant with my older sister Nora. Women had to in those days when they were "with child." And just like that she went from being secretary to a top Broadway producer to walking a baby carriage up and down Riverside Park near the cramped apartment she and my father shared with her parents. She named that baby after Nora, the character who walks out on a stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s play, "A Doll’s House."
Fortunately for her, my father knew better than to expect her to be a homemaker. He'd been thrown out of Cornell for stealing books and made his way to Broadway where he was a stage manager for some of the Broadway greats. But he was a closet playwright. For years been churning out plays he couldn’t convince anyone to produce. He asked my mother not to go back to work but to collaborate with him on a play.
I love imagining the conversation.
"Why not," he'd say. "I have connections."All they needed was a great idea. And she came up with one: An unhappy new mother moves in with her parents in a cramped apartment that’s already crowded with crazy relatives. She arrives, alone and in tears with the baby and a carriage and a pile of diapers. The baby cries. The new mother cries. The maid (it seems even families in two-bedroom apartments had one in those days) quits. It’s a farce with the baby as the whoopee cushion. This was my mother’s brand of alchemy, transforming unhappiness into comedy—her ticket out.
"What, and I can type?" she'd respond.
From Broadway they moved to Hollywood where they wrote movies for Twentieth Century Fox, and never looked back.
My mother called her brand of mothering “letting them make their own mistakes.” She was fairly useless when I got my first period. Couldn’t understand why I might need a bra when I was, as she charitably put it, “flat as a pancake.” Prided herself on letting us walk to school and skipping parent-teacher night. But as a wife her views must have been more traditional because when my father cheated on her, she didn’t walk out on him. She’d lost the power that might once have enabled her to transform her own unhappiness into a hit comedy play.
Instead, she drank. She died when she was 57 years old. I was 23. Dry and mordant to the end, when she was in the hospital she said, “You’re a writer. Take notes.”
Tell us about your mother, and what thoughts you have about her this Mother's Day.