As every author knows, an author is nothing without their fans, and this was true for Joan Didion, who died Dec. 23, 2021. Two of Didion’s early champions were my mother and my aunt. They discovered her while trying to replicate the pattern for a chic dress featured in an issue of Vogue from the 1960s.

Money was tight for the two young mothers. Between them, my mom and aunt would eventually have 13 kids—six of whom would be girls—so sewing shifts and shirts was a financial necessity.

In the beginning, their go-to dress pattern books were Simplicity and McCall’s. But the crème de la crème was Vogue. Aunt Peg, a former model, loved that look. She could study a dress in its pages and replicate it in a day. She’d help my mother, also named Joan, sew it. In the evenings, when the kids were in bed, they’d read the articles, including those written by fledgling journalist Didion.

All three women had much in common. They were native to California, descended from long lines of ranchers, growers, and miners. But my mother and aunt were slightly younger than the writer, and, unlike her, they had dropped out of college to marry, have children, and stay at home to raise their brood. The housewives didn’t venture out to Hollywood, where Didion roamed. Instead they kept modest tract homes in San Pedro, also known as the Port of Los Angeles, where foghorns and tugboat whistles marked their days.

As Irish Catholics, they pressed Didion’s moralistic tales into the purses of their friends—Dorothy, Jean, and Marie. These Italian and Slavic women had also given up college and careers to raise sons and daughters in the parish. Their husbands worked on the docks, at aerospace companies, and at universities in Los Angeles, teaching engineering and screenwriting. In their own way, these women had their fingers on the pulse of Southern California—just like Didion.

As wives of ambitious men, they threw parties replete with jug wine and cubed cheese. One such soirée feted the former nun turned pop artist Corita Kent. The stereo played upbeat music by the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison, not the Doors. In 1970, when Caesar Chavez was organizing field workers, the wives hosted informational meetings that inspired their friends to boycott grapes.

They’d spend the rest of the week attending Mass, hosting school fund-raisers, and ferrying kids to volleyball practice in Ford station wagons. Yet somehow, they retained the verve and moxie that made them such avid journalism readers.

Over time, however, Didion’s essays grew removed from the experiences of my mom and aunt. Perhaps it was because the author had a maid, drove a Corvette Sting Ray, and lived in insular Malibu with a famous husband and only one child. Or it might have been Didion’s increasingly gloomy take on Los Angeles, the name so many use to describe the county’s 88 cities, including San Pedro.

When Didion wrote in a New Yorker essay that “the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles,” my mom disagreed. She, Aunt Peg, and their friends were in the grip of the raging ocean, terrified of how rip tides and storms could steal first one of their surfing sons, at 13, then another, at age 12. Waves, not flames, filled their nightmares; early unspeakable loss marred their days.

By the 1980s, however, the daughters of Joan, Peg, and their friends took up the torch for Didion. Unlike their mothers, these girls went to college and postponed marriage; a few became writers. We devoured The White Album, traveled to El Salvador with Didion’s eponymous novel in our backpack, and drank fine wine. To us, Didion was the North Star and the Southern Cross—both a model of how to write narrative nonfiction and a warning not to limit one’s field lens to white, upper-class subjects.

Yet, to my mind, you can’t talk about Didion without paying tribute to the West Coast women of the mid-20th century who first adopted her. In the pre-feminist 1960s, Didion showed these young mothers that it was possible for a woman to speak up, be heard, and effect change. In the 1970s, she was the older cousin who could get middle-class homemakers into rooms they would never enter alone. Didion gave them a slightly different perspective of their own social scene, which reinforced their instincts. In the 1980s, with the rise of the corporation, Didion extricated the myth from the machine, which attracted a new, less innocent generation of female fans.

And she did this while keeping a chilly distance. Like my mother and aunt, Didion acted like the cool, stylish, wounded California lady she was.

Kathleen Sharp is the author of four books, including Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood (Blackstone). She was a finalist for the PEN Literary Journalism Award in 2019 and has received six awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.