Barbara Samuel O'Neil: Reflections on Joan Didion

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Joan Didion, the celebrated writer, went to Columbia Elementary School for awhile. That would be the old building, made of red sandstone (as well as I can recollect), not the modern version that occupies the lot these days. I have been drunkenly reading her work, admiring the western cleanness, the spare and unsentimental way she captures the world, my world, the West. I was electrified to read her casual mention of the school, a brief sojourn while her father worked at Peterson Field, and even though I now wish to find the exact reference, I can't. It was small and not very important.

It is important to me, however, because I went to Columbia Elementary School, too, back when it was a tall, graceful building with long double hung windows. I, too, am a writer. I remember my second grade classroom on the first floor, the western side of the building, where the teacher had hung squares of construction paper with the names of colors written on them. Orange. Brown. Red. Yellow. It seemed I could own those colors by knowing their names, leash them with letters. Mine!

In the second grade, my best friend was Mark Ruley. We had been in the same class for three years, and friends all along. He sometimes teased me that he liked another girl better than me, but I knew it wasn't true.

I think of that room now and wonder did Joan Didion sit in the same chair in that room? Did our hands, perchance, move across the same desks? Doubtless we both looked out to the same view: trees and mountains and sky. She must have left some essence of her girlhood self in the bathroom where she washed her hands.

Maybe, like me, she once got to school too early and sat on the big stone steps waiting for the other children to arrive. I wonder if the Helen Hunt Jackson rooms were at the Pioneer Museum when Joan Didion lived here. Did she find the same fascination I did when she saw a whole balcony devoted to a woman's life? A woman! And there was a waterfall named for Jackson, too, so she was important. So writers must be important and powerful people.

Our family moved to California, very briefly, when I was eight, and when we came back, we lived in a different neighborhood, and my friend Mark had died of something rare and strange. I thought of him standing by the windows of our classroom before I moved, telling me that we would be friends forever. He was trying to make me feel better about moving. Behind him, the squares of construction paper with their printed words were lined up over the blackboard. Brown, like his hair. Green, like the trees. White like his shirt.

Did Joan study in that room, too?

I wonder.

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