And so Joan Didion does in “Notes From a Native Daughter,” her essay on the city we both grew up in. I often wish I could do the same, but I don’t think I can. Not in the way she did. I can instead only take you on a long walk by the Sacramento River.
The sky is cloudless and the sun slips through the oak trees that line the banks of the river in crowds of leafy and sprawling Kelly green. It is hot but dry. The heat wears you like a glove, it settles over the valley and your shoulders in shimmering warm sheets. At the water treatment plant on the levee, about a mile from where I used to live, there is a view of the river that I revisit often. It stretches out, wide and winding. The brush is too dense to see anything but the green and the blue. The abandoned bikes and crushed beer cans drift into the periphery. It is expansive and never changing and seems like forever — and it is there that the Sacramento River feels to me like it must be the entire world.
A few years ago, I found myself outside of the home where Joan Didion spent the later parts of her teenage years. A few friends and I spotted the open house some springtime day during our senior year of high school. It was the precipice of early adulthood, the moment when Sacramento would suddenly become small, less of a world within itself and more of a hometown. We stopped and went inside. I remember the dust and the daggers of golden light that slanted through the wide windows bordered by mahogany. It was quiet and empty. It smelled like must.
On the wide hardwood floors, I thought about the Sacramento life she must have lived. How it must have been so different from mine. It felt wrong to stand in the quiet corners of this woman’s coming of age. Someone who lived here so many years before I did, whose Sacramento looked and felt so much differently than mine. I wondered if, for her, Sacramento ever felt like the whole world.
When I was young, I’d sit on my grandmother’s porch swing that once belonged to her own grandmother, who had journeyed west and settled in Nebraska to live in a sod house and sweep dirt floors. My grandmother had come to California from Nebraska after the Second World War for a job promised to her father. I would sit on the swing and Grandma would tell me stories about the gold mine, the acres we sat on and the cowboys and natives who once lived here and were free and filled up with this California spirit I can’t quite place or capture. In these moments, the crumbly dirt and fool’s gold would feel alive with a past my grandmother had made up completely. These stories stuck with me, they informed my vision of a Sacramento I deemed important and worth paying attention to.
Sacramento was everything then. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
In childhood, life spreads out before you in a million endless possibilities. A whole, if simple, image of a world that is made up of the borders of your hometown and is easy, kind and filled with magic, because that is what we are promised. As we grow older, these promises break and are glued back together in different shapes — more complex this time. Our relationship with our hometown changes and becomes more nuanced. The world isn’t so magical after a while. Still, it is this shaping and breaking that makes us who we are and are not.
Didion’s Sacramento stories are laced with this strange sense of loss. A resentful nostalgia for a small community that had grown different in her absence. A disdain for the refurbished river walk now referred to as “Old” Sacramento. A knotted braid of longing for the Sacramento of her childhood and a desire to never return. Didion’s Sacramento flooded in the rainy months — the city lies on the intersection of two rivers, which makes our land distinctly fertile but prone to disaster. She worried often about the levees that would break and sweep away the city she knew.
The rivers were dangerous, not worldly. Her Sacramento was rougher around the edges, it was laced with the dying promises of a gold rush, of a railroad boom town, of a city made uneasy in post-war terms. In the Sacramento story she tells, the one from her essay, she writes about a grand house built by wealthy farmers in the valley that, over time, burns. Room by room, it is destroyed. It burns until there is nothing left and it is all forgotten.
While other hometown heroes, the ones like Greta Gerwig of “Lady Bird” acclaim, write coming-of-age stories about the simple sweetness of our capital city, Didion wrote about destruction and change. She, again, wrote a complex, sometimes haunting deconstruction of the myth of a self-sufficient, streets-paved-in-gold Central Valley] in her 2003 book, “Where I Was From.” For years, she unraveled the mythic proportions of the hometown, of the place that feels like the world.
Didion’s hometown has broken many times over. It has taken on new shapes. Today, it has a few more microbreweries and a few less floods. My Sacramento is shaped like the shifting waves of heat wafting off the black pavement on Freeport Boulevard, like the yellow glint of the Tower Bridge, like ripe oranges in Capitol Park, like forgotten schoolyard corners, like the strange lights of the city from far away, getting closer as I take the long drive back from Grandma’s, strapped in a car seat, rocked to sleep in the back of Mom’s old Nissan.
This is one of those things about getting older. Now that I have left home and my mom sold the old house by the river, Sacramento isn’t the only place a person could possibly live. Now that I am faced with the understanding that it will change without me, that it will be made different and unrecognizable and that, one day, it will maybe not even feel like home (let alone the world), I am left thinking about what a hometown means in the first place.
My Sacramento, much like Didion’s, will one day be burned — room by room — and it will all be forgotten. Hometowns do that. The places some of us are privileged enough to view as a magical world, a colorful land of playgrounds, ice cream shops and Girl Scouts meetings, must eventually dissipate into something else. A place we may not know as the world but a place we may be able to love all the same. A place where we can walk on the levee, by the river, and still pretend that it is.
Riley Burke has been reading a lot of Joan Didion recently.
A version of this article appeared on p. 12
of the Nov 16, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.