I’ve decided to turn around the formula today and spotlight a non-family member. I’m looking for a discreet way to pay my respects to two women I’ll never know. And Joan Didion seems to be the right route.
I am talking here about being a child of my time. When I think about the Sixties now I think about an afternoon not of the Sixties at all, an afternoon early in my sophomore year at Berkeley, a bright autumn Saturday in 1953. I was lying on a leather couch in a fraternity house (there had been a lunch for the alumni, my date had gone on to the game, I do not now recall why I had stayed behind), lying there alone reading a book by Lionel Trilling and listening to a middle-aged man pick out on a piano in need of tuning the melodic line to “Blue Room.” All that afternoon he sat at the piano and all that afternoon he played “Blue Room” and he never got it right. I can hear and see it still, the wrong note in “We will thrive on / Keep alive on,” the sunlight falling through the big windows, the man picking up his drink and beginning again and telling me, without ever saying a word, something I had not known before about bad marriages and wasted time and looking backward.
Exquisite. Joan Didion wrote this in 1970. I read it for the first time in 1979, after being introduced to her work by a college professor. This passage is from an essay called “On the Morning After the Sixties,” included in a collection of her work called “The White Album.” She has been my favorite writer ever since.
I have a quirky fascination with old school yearbooks. I found Joan Didion as a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority at the University of California.
This was the 1953-54 school year, which included the very same Saturday afternoon described above.
But this serendipitous discovery happened only because I was researching two of her Tri-Delt sisters from that year. Third-cousins of mine, great-granddaughters of John Braddock Watson, my 3rd great-grandfather’s brother: Susanne (1931-1972) and Jeanie (1932-1959).
Susanne died of cancer at a criminally young age. Clearly a beautiful girl, she was a fine young woman as well. As for Jeanie, there are very, very few stories I’ve run across in my genealogical life that are truly too sad to be told – but hers is one of those.
I only discovered the story, I did not live live through it – it’s not mine to tell. So out of respect to Jeanie, her twin brother, her husband, and her son, this is how I’ll close.
That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail – the idea of having had a “date” for a football lunch now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist – suggests the extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies.