My Own Private Nora

She was the sister I never had.

The funny, outspoken, irreverent, sentimental fool who could make me cry and laugh at the same time.

And so, even though I never knew her personally, the loss of writer, director and all around cool human Nora Ephron at age 71 feels personal to me.

I still recall the gut-wrenching pain and anger I experienced watching “Heartburn” in 1983. That was one of the first movies that really expressed the fury and misery of a bad marriage from a woman’s perspective. But what made it an outstanding book and movie was how Nora mined this vein of emotional upheaval for laughs.

That was her great gift, in my book. She had the rare ability to make light of things, especially the sad, awkward, uncomfortable things that come with the territory of being a fully engaged human.

I’ve read how she was the daughter of writers, how her mother encouraged her to develop stories out of her personal experiences, and no doubt that had a lot to do with her successes. But throughout her career, in films primarily, I loved the stories she chose to tell. Even some of the ones that the critics found wanting.

Of course I loved “When Harry Met Sally,” a cocktail of cynicism and sappiness made when both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were in their prime – it was a big hair home run, and the famous scene in the diner, “I’ll have what she’s having,” will live in highlight montages till the end of time.

And, having spent the last six years living in Seattle, I’ve watched “Sleepless in Seattle” so many times I should probably join a support group.

But among Nora’s so-called failures are some of my favorites. “Mixed Nuts,” an antic madcap comedy about a group of misfits at a suicide hotline on Christmas eve, was roundly panned by most critics in spite of an all-star cast that included Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Juliette Lewis and Liev Schreiber. Sure, it has a corny holiday message, but so what? The scene where Martin and Schreiber dance together provides a few moments of transcendent pleasure.

I also liked “My Blue Heaven” another wacky film about a criminal in the witness protection program (Steve Martin again) who befriends an uptight neighbor (Rick Moranis). Dancing ensues.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen every film nor read every essay she wrote, but through the years I learned to trust Nora Ephron to deliver great, funny, heartfelt stories, whether they were essays about herself, or complete fantasies starring the likes of Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman.

That’s right, sports fans, I liked Nora’s “Bewitched.” Really, really liked it. So there.

The curtain has fallen too soon on her life, but her brilliant, funny work will continue to lighten up this dark world. And for that I am grateful.