With Quintana’s death, Didion’s sense of place deserts her. It is something from the past. Like her house in Brentwood Park,
a period, a decade, during which everything had seemed to connect…. There had been cars, a swimming pool, a garden…. There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile. There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair landing, one eye open, on guard. Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
Time is a threat no dog on the stairs can guard against. Time doesn’t just move on, Didion implies. It passes—literally passes you by. What’s left are memories. “There was a period,” she says,
a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently…during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementoes, their “things,” their totems.
Her drawers and closets are filled with “the detritus of this misplaced belief.” Jet beads and ivory rosaries that belonged to her mother. Three old Burberry raincoats that belonged to her husband. Her daughter’s navy-blue gym shorts and a paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “I find many engraved invitations to the weddings of people who are no longer married.”
In Where I Was From, her incomparable book about California, Didion rejects the legacy of her own past—the tough, neurotic, unpredictable, narrow, pioneering, stubborn superiority—even as she revels in it. In a piece about Georgia O’Keeffe, written in 1976, Didion admiringly describes the artist as “hard, a straight-shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees.” That is a good description, of course, of Didion herself. Yet looking back at that essay today, what stands out more is the softness, the vulnerability of a very ordinary, lovely motherly pride. Quintana was with her on that trip to the Chicago Art Institute. She was seven. They stood together beneath a large canvas of O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds. Quintana “looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. ‘Who drew it,’ she whispered after a while. I told her. ‘I need to talk to her,’ she said finally.”
In Blue Nights, in a short, delicate prose poem of a chapter, Didion’s ironic reverence for the dusty, parched Sacramento of her youth as well as for the nearer past, the idyllic ten years in Brentwood, are gently, tenderly gathered up to show us:
What about the “Craftsman” dinner knife of my mother’s?
The “Craftsman” dinner knife on Aunt Kate’s table, the one I recognize in the photographs? Was it the same “Craftsman” dinner knife that dropped through the redwood slats of the deck into the iceplant on the slope? The same “Craftsman” dinner knife that stayed lost in the iceplant until the blade was pitted and the handle scratched? The knife we found only when we were correcting the drainage on the slope in order to pass the geological inspection required to sell the house and move to Brentwood Park? The knife I saved to pass on to her, a memento of the beach, of her grandmother, of her childhood?
I still have the knife.
Still pitted, still scratched.
I also have the baby tooth her cousin Tony pulled, saved in a satin-lined jeweler’s box, along with the baby teeth she herself eventually pulled and three loose pearls.
The baby teeth were to have been hers as well.
The history of California, so essential to so much of what she has written, is lost, dropped between redwood planks that have been torn up. Memories, so essential to her survival in The Year of Magical Thinking (her husband’s shoes in the closet for months after he died, for when he came back)—even this fantasy of solace has been ripped away. The mementoes cluttering her drawers were meant to “bring back the moment,” she writes. But now, they serve “only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.” The iceplant, the redwood deck, the “Craftsman” dinner knife, the reality of a life and the lives that came before it—all reduced to three loose pearls, to baby teeth, a reliquary for a lost child.
Memories—even these memories, the ones she has collected in this book—are as fragile and complicated and beautiful as one of the scraps of her grandmother’s lace, she tells us. They are as singular and, finally, as meaningless. There is no dress to trim with the old lace. There is no daughter. There is no future. Blue Nights is a deeply moving elegy to that void. There is so much life in the book, so much memory stored as carefully as those baby teeth, that the recognition of their futility is that much more devastating. “The enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable,” Didion writes, a description of being a parent full of love and mystery and fear and pain. In the cruel reality of mortality, she is left with her daughter’s impossible and impossibly painful immortality:
I myself placed her ashes in the wall.
I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six.
I know what it is I am now experiencing.
I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.