Dusting Didion

Renee Richichi

My late mother spoke of nothing but depravity in her final years. 

The 1970s were just the 1960s! Too much shit happened to cram it all into one decade. No time left. None at all; just tall men climbing into small European cars. A period you should waste no time rushing back to, Mory! 

She spoke nonsense, blurting out the uncomfortable and often inappropriate. 

It’s the colic that’s got me! Did you call George Schlatter about my set? Tell him it’s good enough to open for Tomlin. Better yet tell him it’ll bring the boys home from war!

My mother used to tell me the greatest gift is grief. 

When I go, find Didion. She was the only one in that whole lot worth a damn. 

Naturally, I immersed myself in the art of Joan Didion as my mother’s health plummeted deeper into the red, and her memoirs proved truer than any of my mother’s mumblings of her. On the surface, Didion is the inaccessible fly on the wall, airing out the children of Aquarius’s dirty laundry, but plunge further into her magical way of thinking and you’ll find medical queries where grief wallows. 

I stayed by her bedside each night until the night nurse arrived. I received strict instruction from higher-up orderlies, awful people, regarding the condition I should keep her in (“never agitate her, don’t let her eat past 7, and always keep the television at a low volume”), but when midnight rolled around, well, as she said what do you think you’re doing? Don’t put a blanket on me, I’m just getting started!

For the next several hours, my mother would poke and prod tirelessly at her memory, stretching the unimaginable, forgetting her place, fumbling, yelling, and eventually resuming whatever anecdote taxied into her mind.

The year was 1975– Americans feared the ocean, oil was 44 cents a gallon, and our men were desperately trying to pawn off the non-refundable skill of post-traumatic stress set off by a ceiling fan. Oh and Ms. Magazine was the new Cosmo!

“Well, what were you up to?” I would ask.

Dusting my Didion’s!

John, Didion’s husband, was reading Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? and drinking Scotch before he died. Didion assured him she had not used a single-malt when fixing his second glass and he was relieved. He stopped talking and his arm slouched into an abnormal position. She thought he was making a crude joke and wished he would stop. Then she thought he was choking. She gave him the Heimlich and his body slumped forward. He was dead when she dialed the number for New York Presbyterian. 

My mother died in a rather sudden way too. She was gripping one of the “S” Scrabble tiles and leaned forward, I thought to cough, or to breathe. I’ve got to go to the store, Mory. We’re out of bread again. I thought, “What would a sick woman do with bread?” I thumbed through my letter pile, gave up and walked to the living room where the nurses kept her prescriptions tucked away in the bookshelf. She didn’t like people seeing them. 

When I returned, the board lay askew and her hand was resting on the pile of books she kept beside her bed. She was peaceful and her eyes were open, but she didn’t make a show of it. John died slouched forward, scotch in hand, while Didion was still thinking about their after-dinner plans. It was still my mother’s turn in Scrabble. I took my “S” and exchanged her Z’s for more forgiving consonants and tallied 11 points at the bottom of the cardboard box for the word “style.”

Her executor advised me to rummage through the old filing cabinets she stacked from floor to ceiling in the garage in hopes of recovering a will.

“It’s anything but special really; just needs to be signed and dated. Nothing nasty.”

The executor is a short man and often swallows his vowels, making his dictations nearly impossible to understand over the phone. He drives a silver Lexus, parks on the far right side of the street, and crawls out of the passenger seat when getting out of his car, making a show of his awkward length. An effort of time! A phrase my mother used to say in times of morbidity and embarrassment. I find it fitting when watching the silly man climb his way out of the car, as if he’s conquering Everest.

 “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self- pity.” A line that sits, nestled, in my brain between the rational and the unknown. I envy the way grieving people write about grief. There’s a sense of spontaneity that no other emotion in the human cannon possesses. The broken pattern of a Sunday afternoon, the busted taillight on their car that’s still sitting in your garage: the feeling remains. The culprits– a slippery road, a clogged artery, a disturbed mind, they’re all still there: jumping in front of you, yet it all happened suddenly.

I start with the southwest corner of the garage.  I pull down the small bins that sit like misshapen hats on top the cabinets, and let CVS receipts litter the ground. The cabinets are discolored and weathered from decades of ear-pinching winters and non-ventilated summers. I knock each one down one by one, and let the echo of each crash displace me, in hopes of shaking myself awake. I’ve yet to cry.  

When my Father passed, I threw out every clock in my apartment. Every minute that went by without him felt unnatural. If I didn’t know the hour, nothing was lost. Everything was just—right— there; untouched. We would talk on the phone until there was nothing else in the world either of us could say. Reaganomics, Cheney, my mother, Cheney again (he always forgot something), what Mother cooked for dinner and what my father wished she cooked for dinner. I remember one phone call, he had just been put on disability from a freak accident at the quarry, and I was furious with him, because my Mother told me he hadn’t voted since Nixon. He droned on and on about diplomatic hypocrisy and the country’s lack of meritocracy. I told him those were all reasons TO vote. I heard my Mother chuckle somewhere in the background and I knew he was smiling when he said: “I’m not trying to change the world, Mory. That’s a young person’s game.”

My mother died in a rather sudden way too. She was gripping one of the “S” Scrabble tiles and leaned forward, I thought to cough, or to breathe. I’ve got to go to the store Mory. We’re out of bread again. I thought, “What would a sick woman do with bread?”

At his funeral I memorized the way people moved or spoke to each other, so when he called I could tell him everything. I could tell him about the way Aunt Craven pursed her lips before criticizing the way Mother laid out the food, or how cousin Mike stopped wearing the cross on his neck when he left the church, but still carries it around in case Uncle Franklin makes a ghostly appearance (we have a way of treating funerals like family reunions). I felt incredibly lonely when my Father died. I convinced myself that every cough or sneeze was a part of some bigger plan that I didn’t have the rights to. Nothing could replace the vacancy my Father left. I got a puppy. 

My mother was a semi-successful actress in her time. She worked with Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, and was rumored to be closely admired by Holland Taylor. She was known for her performative stunts on the carpet. After John Lennon’s new-found divinity amongst outraged bible-thumpers in middle America, my Mother wore a faux-nun’s dress designed by Diane von Furstenberg. It was the sacrilegious statement of the night, even before she revealed the habit of reading “John Lennon’s My Savior” in red fabric paint. 

I had an obsession with my Mother’s versatility during my second year of graduate school. Tabloids reported that she was enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia University in the early 60s. There’s only one photo and it could easily be any Jane with bouncing curls and books stuffed in her purse, but I think I wanted it to be her. She pretty much disconnected from the conceivable world by the time I figured out she had been a household name, but when lucid, I brought up her education and why she wanted to be an actress. She hoisted it on generational trauma:

“But why? Why movies and television?”

I dunno. It was just something we did. Back then, you either fought for this country, or died trying, auditioned for film, or burned your bra, and that was more Gloria’s game.

“What’s she like?”

Gloria? A horrible poker player. She had a poor memory for the simple things. I used to tell her “if you’re gonna take inventory on our lunches at least bring a pen and paper!

“I didn’t know she quoted you.”

She didn’t. Not in any sort of way that would have been public. She knew better than to write down any of my babble, but she certainly was a magnet for the profound.

“And Joan Didion?”

Skinny. The girl never ate! Smoked her way through the West Coast, leaving a trail of unreplicable work and ash everywhere she went. She was the only one that really knew how it all worked. I used to joke that she recorded every conversation she ever had and transcribed the essay-worthy portions into a yellow legal pad at some dingy bar somewhere off of highway 138.

I’ve found myself quivering at the phrase “One day my mother drowned,” as if the following morning, on a new day, their Mother would be cooking a proper breakfast, sopping wet.

My mother was insistent on me reading Joan Didion to cope, but I didn’t understand why; she wrote about grief in the most journalistic style conceivable. When John died, Didion consulted several medical journals and theories on the grieving brain. She didn’t let anyone visit her once John’s death became the front page of every paper coast to coast. She answered phone calls politely, and lay in bed contemplating the empty space next to her. She was, as John’s doctor described, “a good griever.” But she also kept his running shoes. She thought it cruel for him to return one night and not be able to take a jog the next morning.

I sift through Mother’s old things, but turn up with Sears catalogues dating back to the 80s, a hefty stack of Life magazines held together by yellowing twine, a pair of old pointe shoes, and a leather journal. The journal is filled with incoherent lists and her old SAG card tucked neatly between two pages: both titled “Thank you to my dears.”  The pages entailed the following:

Thank you Martha Gellhorn for keeping your name!

Thank you Phyllis Schlafly for making liberation the married woman’s enemy.

Fuck girls who do TV! 

Thank you Scorsese.

Thank you Joan Didion for keeping the world honest. You truly are an enigma to fact and a blessing to fiction!

Crumpled in sort of a haphazard square was an ode to Didion she typed up on her old typewriter. 

It read:

This is a story of the rescue of one soul

I wait for something to pick up

scene by scene

line by line.

the plot is an inner sense of a particular moment.

I’ve tried to make outlines,

but I end up with visions

that are crude, generous, beautiful, vicious

In the chaos,

I lift the small pleasures of literature, and allow 

the naked and hopeless world to work out as neatly as I think it will

such a miserable sight,

I have in mind the scene

and I sit down at my desk 

to write. 

I sit in anger on the garage floor. She really could have been something. She could have done something meaningful, created a legacy that stretched beyond the bounds of carpet theatrics and quiet allyships with the bread and butter of the ERA movement. The year she won an Emmy, the ERA was ratified in 37 states. She thanked the Academy, gushed about a possible bun in the oven, and made a passing joke about my Father being a quarryman from a small town in Indiana. 

My Mother could have been a trailblazer for women everywhere, but instead, she performatively read Didion and kept a list of thank yous to the political and Hollywood elite. I can’t leave her words untold and her life unfinished. I roll over and forage my purse for a pen and write: When my Father died, I got a dog. When my Mother died, I read Didion.