Delia was born in 1944, and by the time I came along four years later the family was living in California. My parents had signed a seven-year contract to write screenplays for Twentieth Century Fox. Nora was in elementary school, Delia home with a nanny; my mother barely paused to give birth to me. She went into labor while she and my father were writing the final scene of Look for the Silver Lining. After she banged out "The End," they drove to the hospital.

We lived in a Spanish-style, white stucco, 14-room Beverly Hills house. In a photo taken in its gated courtyard, lush with camellia bushes and shaded by an olive tree, my mother poses, holding me. By her side, an ever-confident Nora smiles and curtsies in her party dress; she's the star of the picture. My sister Delia, wearing a dress that sticks out around her like a lampshade, sucks her thumb and fidgets. Something is dribbling out of my mouth, and I'm already squirming to get down so I can trail after Delia and Nora. Four years later, the youngest Ephron sister was born and my mother named her Amy, after the fourth sister in Little Women.

As we got older, we grew comfortable in roles that met our parents' expectations. Nora was the smart one. Delia, the comedian. I was the pretty, obedient one. And Amy was the adventurous mischief-maker. But in reality, we were more alike than we were different—all bossy and opinionated, witty and articulate, like our mother. At dinner, a three-course event that anchored every evening at 6:30 sharp, the competition for airtime was Darwinian. My instinct was to step back from the fray—I didn't have the stomach to fight to be heard.

Our 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 still, as she charitably put it, "flat as a pancake." Prided herself on letting us walk to school and skipping parent-teacher night. It wouldn't have occurred to her to stay up to talk to me after my first date.

But as a wife, she believed her commitment was traditional: "Until death do us part." When she found out my father was fooling around with other women, she didn't walk out on him like Ibsen's Nora. She'd lost the alchemical powers that might once have enabled her to transform the betrayal into a wickedly funny story, the way our Nora would years later, turning her husband's infidelity into the best-selling roman à clef Heartburn. Or the way Delia turned our father's endless crazy phone calls into the comic novel Hanging Up. Or the way Amy transformed the theft of all her jewelry into a poignant essay, "Loose Diamonds." Or the way I reimagined the end of my mother's life in my novel There Was an Old Woman.

Instead, my mother drank. My father drank, too. Alcohol ignited her anger, and sometimes they fought from midnight to dawn. By the time Delia and I were both in college, things got so bad that Amy ran away and ended up moving in with Nora and her first husband in an apartment near Central Park.

Next: The one way their mother changed their world


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