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Joan Didion high school yearbook photo

A Childhood in Sacramento

“All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”


Read an excerpt from Where I Was From

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 backings of the frames.

Joan Didion's great-grandmother in California in the 1850s

A photo taken in the 1850s of Joan Didion’s great-grandmother.

Joan Didion with her father, Frank Reese Didion, mother, Eduene Didion, and brother, James, in 1943 on an army base. Didion’s father was a finance officer in the Army Air Corps, and the family shuttled from base to base during the war.

Joan Didion and family in 1943 on an airforce base
Joan Didion as a child with her brother James

A childhood photo of Joan Didion with her brother, James.

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 watercolor of my grandmother’s. There were letters my grandmother’s brother Jim, like her father a merchant sea captain, had sent her in 1918 from England, where his ship, the S.S. Armenia, was in drydock in Southampton after having been torpedoed. There were letters my father had written to his own father in 1928, from a summer job on a construction crew outside Cresent City—my father asking, in letter after letter, if his father could please put in a word for him with an acquaintance who did the hiring for the State Fair jobs, a plea I happen to know was in vain.

I know this because I once wanted my father to make the same call for me.

My mother had told me to forget asking him, because he’s just like his own father, everybody in Sacramento picks up the phone to get their children jobs at the Fair but your father and his father never will, they won’t ask for favors.

The main entrance to the  California State Fair at Broadway and Stockton Boulevards, circa 1950. Source: Sacramento Public Library

1950 Postcard of the California State Fair Agriculture Building

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. These 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 1952. I keep thinking about Sacramento and what people are doing. I got a letter from Nancy—she misses Sacramento, too. They saw “The King and I,” “Where’s Charley,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Pal Joey.” 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, traveling with her parents (this is only a guess, but an informed one, since another letter to my mother that summer mentions having “heard from Nancy who is at the Greenbriar and so bored”) before beginning at Stanford.

Nancy and I had known each other since we were five, when we had been in the same ballet class and Miss Marion Hall’s dancing school 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 program 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.

Joan Didion high school yearbook class photo

Joan Didion’s McClatchy High School yearbook photo of her freshman-year class.

Yearbook photos of Joan Didion with other high school newspaper staff.

Joan-Didion high school yearbook Prospector staff photo
Joan Didion and Daily Cal Editors.jpeg

Photo of Joan Didion with fellow Berkeley newspaper Daily Cal editors in 1953.

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.

Excerpted from Where I Was From by Joan Didion. Copyright © 2003 by Joan Didion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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