In Sable and Dark Glasses By Joan Didion
Joan Didion remembers her distaste for being a child and her yearning for a glamorous, grown up life. Featured in Vogue Magazine October 2011
I never had much interest in being a child. As a way of being it seemed flat, failed to engage. When I was in fact a child, six and seven and eight years old, I was utterly baffled by the enthusiasm with which my cousin Brenda, a year and a half younger, accepted her mother’s definition of her as someone who needed to go to bed at six-thirty and finish every bite of three vegetables, one of them yellow, with every meal. Brenda was also encouraged to make a perfect white sauce, and to keep a chart showing a gold star for every time she brushed her teeth. I, meanwhile, was trying to improve the dinner hour by offering what I called “lettuce cocktails” (a single leaf of iceberg lettuce and crushed ice in a stemmed glass), and inventing elaborate scenarios featuring myself as an adult, specifically an adult 24 years old, an age on which I settled because my mother had assured me that 24 was the best, her favorite year. Over those years during which I was determined to bypass childhood, she and I discussed this question of age at a length she must have found tedious, but perhaps she did not: We are talking here about a woman, my mother, who tied what she construed to be her first gray hair in a bow and mailed it to her sister Gloria, she of the yellow-vegetable dictum. I once asked her what made 24 so memorable. It seemed that she had been married when she was 24. It seemed that I had been born when she was 24. It seemed that 24 was (I can hardly believe our discussions of age deteriorated to this, but possibly the lettuce cocktails had edged us both into a casino mode) her “lucky number.”
My own fantasies of what life would be like at 24 tended to the more spectacular. In these dramas of my own devise I was sometimes wearing a sable coat, although I had never seen one. I was wearing this sable coat in an urban setting that looks in retrospect not unlike Shubert Alley. I was at other times walking on a moor, although I had not yet read those English novels in which moors figured heavily. But here is how I most often preferred to visualize myself: not on a moor, not in Shubert Alley, but standing on the steps of a public building somewhere in South America (Argentina comes first to mind, although Argentina was like the sable coat, never actually seen, more concept than reality), wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi. If you were to have asked me why I was standing on the steps of this public building in Argentina, I would have had a ready answer: I was standing on the steps of this public building in Argentina because I was getting a divorce. Hence the dark glasses, hence the paparazzi. I would let other six-year-olds (Brenda, say) imagine their wedding days, their princess dresses, their Juliet caps and seed pearls and clouds of white tulle: I had moved briskly on to the day of my (Buenos Aires) divorce, and the black silk mantilla the occasion would clearly require.
As a matter of fact I already had a black silk mantilla, dredged by me from one of the many mysterious boxes in which my mother kept the clues to being 24. In another of those boxes I found the Jean Patou cape, red velvet with a white fur collar, that she reported having worn when she left her wedding reception. I also found the ankle-length red lace dress she wore when she “gave teas,” a form of entertainment more popular than anyone might imagine it to have been in the part of rural California in which we then lived. My mother “gave teas” the way other mothers breathed. Her own mother “gave teas.” All of their friends “gave teas,” each involving butter cookies extruded from a metal press and pastel bonbons ordered from See’s. “Giving a tea” was a process that entailed, as I had observed it, arranging translucent slices of lemon on white Wedgwood plates and spreading little pinwheel sandwiches with cream cheese and watercress, per the same Boston Cooking School Cookbook from which Brenda was being taught to make the perfect white sauce. And then, the most important step of all, the key to the eventual effect, the very point of giving a tea: taking that red lace dress from its box and dropping it over its own slip of ivory chiffon.
There were eventually other clues to adult life to be found in my mother’s boxes. There was the white silk shirt strewn with star-shaped silver sequins that she wore when my father was stationed at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs and she took me ice-skating at the Broadmoor Hotel. There was her petit-point evening bag. There was the plaid seersucker suit in which she crossed the country by train when, en route to meet my father in North Carolina in 1942, we traveled from Los Angeles to New Orleans on the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited, a transcontinental train so crowded in those early days of World War II that my mother and small brother and I spent much of the trip standing in the couplings between the cars. I remember the rancid smell of the grease in the couplings. I remember a sailor on the train, a survivor of the USS Wasp, who once at a siding somewhere in the Southwest got off the train and came back with a Coca-Cola for my mother and a present for me, a silver-and-turquoise Navajo bracelet. I still today have the bracelet, too small now for my wrist. I also still today have snapshots taken on that trip. In these snapshots, which mainly show my mother and brother and me at moments when we have just missed or are just about to miss one or another key connection, for example looking forlorn between trains in Union Station in Los Angeles or for another example looking somewhat less forlorn between trains on the veranda of the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, my mother is wearing the plaid seersucker suit, spectator pumps, and, pinned at her temples, white silk gardenias.
From the snapshot evidence of the period, which shows me in pleated skirts and handknit cardigans and what appears to have been a Brownie uniform, she would have been less than entirely on board for the sable coat and the Buenos Aires divorce. The sable coat and the Buenos Aires divorce would have been more my grandmother’s territory. It was my grandmother who knit the cardigans, yet it was also my grandmother who presented a more evolved idea of how I should appear to the world. She gave me Stroock vicuña coats, Lilly Daché hats, and flasks of Elizabeth Arden On Dit sealed with translucent paper and gold thread. The Lilly Daché hats were meant to encourage me to go to church. The Elizabeth Arden On Dit was meant to encourage me to get over the mumps. Brenda, as the next oldest granddaughter, was also the beneficiary of this method of child-rearing. When our grandmother took us for the day to San Francisco she ordered us Dungeness Crab Louis at El Prado and bought us dewy bunches of violets at the flower stand across Union Square. Both my mother and her sister Gloria seemed to feel a pro forma obligation to register disapproval of these tactics. “What will they have to look forward to?” I remember Gloria asking my grandmother.
“Let that be the greatest of your worries,” I remember my grandmother answering.
Meanwhile I made up games to play with Brenda. In one game we were getting on an elevator at I. Magnin in San Francisco when we heard the operator speak. This is what the operator always said: “There is only room for one more.” The operator had a spectral white face and spoke in an eerie voice. The spectral white face and eerie voice should (always) have warned us but we (always) missed the signals: This I. Magnin elevator was of course about to plunge, with Brenda and me on board, to the bottom of its shaft. I recognize this now as one more version of the hoary tale in which some stranger with a spectral face (an elevator operator, a nurse, a hotel clerk, a taxi driver, or, better still, a hearse driver) either does or does not save the life of the protagonist, by delivering the line about “only room for one more.” The best version of this takes place not in an elevator but in a hospital, where the (inevitable) young woman discovers (too late) that the corridor she is about to enter—the corridor, of course, where there is “only room for one more”—leads to the hospital morgue.
This was Brenda’s favorite game. I am ashamed to say that I could scare her witless with it, and often did. “Do only room for one more again,” she would plead, and I would. My own favorite among our games, and this may or may not say something about the difference between growing up on yellow vegetables and growing up on lettuce cocktails, involved going page by page through an issue of Vogue and choosing what to “buy.” Brenda could buy whatever she wanted from the left-hand pages; I was limited to the right-. The point was to see which of us could assemble, given the options only as they turned up, the most desirable wardrobe. The rules, which I invented even as we turned the glossy pages, were quite strict. Either editorial or advertising pages qualified, but every page had to be considered. Dismissal of a page required a “reason,” provided by me.
I am mortified to remember that I prevailed on Brenda to play this mindless game for hours. I am also mortified to remember that 20 years later, when I was no longer in danger of being mistaken for a child and Brenda herself was getting married, I was still trying to run the game, make the rules, have it my way. There would be at Brenda’s wedding, I promised her, nothing banal, nothing ordinary. She could forget the princess dress. She could forget the Juliet cap. She could forget the seed pearls, the clouds of white tulle. I had decreed: There would instead be checked gingham and wreaths of daisies. I was the older cousin. We would therefore do it my way. I myself would make the wreaths.
When the day of the wedding arrived I did make the wreaths, cutting tiny slits in each stem and threading the daisies into one another. Cutting the slits and threading the daisies took longer than I had planned. I was in fact still making the wreaths as the guests were being seated. The bridesmaids waited in their checked gingham dresses. Brenda waited in her own checked gingham dress. Her wedding, she later pointed out, turned out to be one more of my lettuce-cocktail moments. That she might have preferred a yellow-vegetable moment never, not ever, not once, not when I was pressing the gingham dresses and not when I was threading the daisy wreaths, crossed my mind.