“SHE WAS BORN IN THE FIRST HOUR of the third day of March, 1966, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights.
We were told that we could adopt her late the afternoon of the same day … One of the nurses had tied a pink ribbon in the fierce dark hair. “Not that baby,” John would repeat to her again and again in the years that followed, reenacting the nursery scene, the recommended “choice” narrative, the moment when, of all the babies in the nursery, we picked her. “Not that baby… that baby. The baby with the ribbon.”
“Do that baby,” she would repeat in return …
A reader of Blue Nights might not realize that the most dedicated of Didion devotees, such as I am, have been hearing about “the baby” for all these many years. Now she is gone, and Didion is bereft, as any mother would be. But this mother is one of America’s most famous chroniclers of bereftness and alienation and the landscape of despair, and in Blue Nights Didion circles the images of her past like a wary woman who has found a basket lodged in the reeds that contains a sleeping infant.
And, as it happens, on the night of finding the baby in 1966, Didion realizes that she is not ready. That night, Didion’s sister-in-law informs her that they must go to Saks in the morning to buy a layette. Didion is appalled that she hadn’t even thought of a layette, or a bassinet, and she dreams that very same night that she’s left the baby asleep in a drawer and forgotten her. “Dreaming in other words that I had failed,” she writes. “Been given a baby and failed to keep her safe.”
The baby, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, died at age 39. Blue Nights opens with what would have been Quintana’s seventh wedding anniversary.
I first read Joan Didion at age 17, in a class at USC, when the professor gave us “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” That story — of one Lucille Miller, a wife and mother who isn’t satisfied with her life in the San Bernardino Valley, who has an affair, who murders her husband by burning him alive in a 1964 Volkswagen in a lemon grove — was written in 1966, just before the adoption of the baby, I assume. I have read it maybe 50 times:
This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids,” they say without regret, and look to the future.
When I read that passage for the first time, at 17, I sat as if someone had hit me. I was a Susan, and my friends Kimberlys and Sherrys and Debbis. My mother had been married to a man whose sister l...