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I put what I did not want to be thrown away - letters, photographs, clippings, folders and envelopes I could not that day summon up the time or the heart to open - in a large box.
Some weeks later the box arrived at my apartment in New York, where it sat in the dining room for perhaps a month, unopened. Finally I opened it. There were pictures of me on the beach at Carmel in 1936, pictures of me and my brother on the beach at Stinson Beach in 1946, pictures of me and my brother and my rabbit in the snow in Colorado Springs. There were pictures of great-aunts and cousins and great-great-grandparents who could be identified only because our mother, on the evening before she died, had thought to tell the names to my brother, who wrote them on the backing of the frames. There were pictures of my mother as a two-year old visiting her grandmother in Oregon in 1912, there were pictures of my mother at a Peterson Field barbecue in 1943, a young woman in her early thirties wearing flowers in her hair as she makes hamburgers. There was an unframed watercolour of my grandmother’s…
There were also letters from me, letters I had written my mother from Berkeley, from the time I went down for summer school in 1952, making up credits between high school and college, until the time I graduated in 1956. The letters were in many ways unsettling, even dispiriting, in that I both recognized myself and did not. “Have never been so depressed as when I got back here Sunday night”, one of the first letters reads, from the summer of 19522. “I keep thinking about Sacramento and what people are doing. I got a letter from Nancy - she misses Sacramento too… A woman committed suicide by jumping out a window across from the Waldorf while they were there. Nancy said it was terrible, they had to clean up the street with fire hoses.”
Nancy was my best friend from Sacramento… Nancy and I had known each other since we were five, when we had been in the same ballet class at Miss Marion Hall’s dancing class in Sacramento.
In fact there was also, in the box that came from my mother’s house, a program for a recital of that very ballet class: “Joan Didion and Nancy Kennedy,” the programme read. “Les Petites.” There were also in the box many photographs of Nancy and me: modeling children’s clothes in a charity fashion show, wearing matching corsages around our wrists at a high-school dance, standing on the lawn outside Nancy’s house on the day of her wedding, Nancy in bouffant white, the bridesmaids in pale green organza, all of us smiling.
The last time I saw Nancy was at the Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, during the Christmas season of the Iran hostage crisis. She was at the next table, having dinner with her husband and children. They were laughing and arguing and interrupting just as she and her brothers and her mother and father had laughed and argued and interrupted in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when I would have dinner at their house two or three times a week.
We kissed, we had a drink together, we promised to keep in touch.
A few months later Nancy was dead, of cancer, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
I sent the recital program to Nancy’s brother, to send on to her daughter.
I had my grandmother’s watercolor framed and sent it to the next oldest of her three granddaughters, my cousin Brenda, in Sacramento.
I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.