“my mother explained the ’60s & ’70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s essays”

It was 13 degrees outside. The winter light was piercing on the western side of Park Avenue. I had on two sweaters under my wool coat, a pair of leggings under my jeans, and winter boots with fur trim up to my knees. An ill-fitting knit hat scratched at my forehead and my sunglasses sat cold on my nose. I had just stepped out of an office where a doctor had told me about my inverted cervical spine, the herniated disc in my thoracic spine, and the pain I would need to accept.

At a previous appointment, another doctor had pressed on my back and said, “You know the old ladies you see up here on the East side that are all stooped over? This is the beginning of that.” I had always imagined that it was the weight of decades of city living that had made those women curve in on themselves. When I thought about it this way it did not seem inconceivable that at the age of 23, and after three years of living here, my own spine would begin to buckle. For four months I had visited this office three times a week for physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor suggested six additional months of the same. He and I both knew that I would not be coming back.

The sidewalk was nearly deserted as I started walking north. There was only one other figure in sight: a small woman with striking white hair, very pale skin, and large dark eyes. She had a cane and was picking her way slowly across 57th Street in my direction. Her tiny frame was draped in a thin coat more suited to 60 degrees than 13. She wore white slipper shoes, thin white chinos, and her ankles were bare to the icy wind.

My first thought was of the doctor’s words, “this is the beginning of that,” but this woman’s spine was straight. This was a woman I had never met, but thought of everyday. Between doctor’s appointments, I had been reading and re-reading my way through her work. This was Joan Didion. I recognized her immediately. She was looking at my boots and then she peered up at my face as we crossed paths. Startled perhaps by my look of recognition, she quickly looked down at her feet and kept walking. I stood there and watched her go.

When I was a teenager my mother explained the ‘60s and ‘70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s collected essays. Haight-Ashbury was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Howard Hughes was “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” I knew “John Wayne: a Love Song” before I had any idea who John Wayne was. My mother read these titles off to me with a deep reverence and it sounded like a different language. This was before I knew writers to have distinct styles. I would not understand the full meaning of many of the cultural references in Didion’s work until later re-readings in college, but I learned to associate the eras of my parents’ youth with the severe rhythm of a Didion sentence. I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born. I thought it was as much an indication of time passing as the yellow of the pages. My mother was captivated by Didion’s California and it became the California of my imagination. I would read “Los Angeles Notebook” and get the words mixed up with my mother’s voice.

But my mother’s personal geography never included New York. When I was run down and sought to think of New York City as a force responsible for the bend in my spine, it was Joan Didion’s words that I wanted to hear.

At a dinner party that same night, in an apartment overlooking the Natural History Museum, I tried to relay my afternoon encounter to the group—all writers of varying ages. It was the younger writers who could most appreciate the excitement of the sighting—the ones who still read “Goodbye to All That” repeatedly, who were still unsure of New York City themselves. We had all worked together over the past few months and Didion’s work had been a frequent point of conversation. What did I think of the cane, they wanted to know. Was it temporary? Did she look sad? Why was she dressed so strangely? Our hostess, a contemporary of Didion’s, begged us to change the subject. She hadn’t been able to get through The Year of Magical Thinking, which she thought portrayed an idealized version of Didion and John Dunne’s marriage. There were friends of friends in common, she had heard some stories. The professor among us, a successful essayist in his own right, told me that he would never see her on a pedestal. She was, to him, just another successful writer who had done some very good early work. He could not read the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” and find in them messages on how a life can be lived.

“You should have offered her your boots,” one friend said. “She was cold.”

—from V. L. Hartmann, "Joan Didion Crosses the Street." The Morning News, November 18, 2009.


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