I painted John Wayne because I love Joan Didion. In her piece, “John Wayne: A love song,” she described an image that jumped from my heart into my hands. And I painted, not just John Wayne, but I painted my heart, filled with the words that she, I, had longed to hear…filled with the promise of love, the promise of home.
“We went three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened hut which served as a theatre, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow’. As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.” Joan Didion.
I had just moved to France. I’m surprised at how easily I did it. I had been offered new places before, closer places, more predictable places I suppose. One would think that a Minneapolis girl could easily transition into a Chicago love, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make the move. It wasn’t my bend in the river.When Dominique told me to stay, just stay, I could see the cottonwoods, for the first time, and I stayed.
And it isn’t about being rescued. I’m not sure I believe in that. But maybe it is about being saved. About saving each other. In tiny bits, every day, with just the smallest phrases, the smallest gestures, we can do that. We can be the heros and heroines for each other.
The painting I made of John Wayne rests in our salon. On numerous occasions, in a sea of indecipherable French words, I will hear someone yell out “John Wayne!” And I am home. Even my mother-in-law, with memory failing, names, people, places, even loved-ones sometimes forgotten, she can pull out the name John Wayne, and I smile, not just because she can still remember the name, but I think for a brief moment, she too, is taken to her own bend in the river, her true love, and she is home.
The “hot winds” blow all around us, forever. If we are lucky enough to find that cool place, that place that calls us, welcomes us, and gathers us in, then I guess, we may not always be safe, but we will be saved.