One of my favorite Christmas novellas is by Truman Capote. A Christmas Memory is about a young Capote (“Buddy”) and Miss Sook, a child-like old maid cousin Capote lived with as a youngster in Alabama. The plot centers on Miss Sook and Buddy’s annual tradition of making fruitcakes for family, friends, missionaries, and even Eleanor Roosevelt. They collect pecans. They buy whiskey. They go hunting for the perfect Christmas tree. They make tinfoil angels. They give Christmas kites to each other. Reading the book is like staring at a daguerreotype, tinged in sepia and clouded around the edges with memory.
A Christmas Memory was the first book I ever read by Truman Capote. I knew Capote’s name, had seen pictures of him. I didn’t know anything about his alcoholism and drug addiction. I didn’t know he was gay. I didn’t know he had written the first nonfiction novel (In Cold Blood), a book that changed the literary landscape. I didn’t know he started working for The New Yorker as a copyboy when he was a teenager. I didn’t know he was eventually fired from that job for offending Robert Frost. Basically, I didn’t know anything about Capote when I first encountered his tale of Buddy and Miss Sook.
In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know any of those details about him. It would have colored my enjoyment of A Christmas Memory. There’s something incredibly innocent and beautiful in Capote’s prose. It touches a place that, I think, exists in most readers’ Christmas remembrances. It’s a place that’s warm and happy. A place where darkness and anger and death are held at bay. A place where Buddy and Miss Sook can forever make their fruitcakes and decorate their tree.
Capote starts the book in much the same way Dickens begins A Christmas Carol, with the hint of fairy tale:
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
Dickens begins his Christmas story in earnest with the words “Once upon a time”; Capote does much the same with his instruction to “Imagine a morning…” Both writers invoke a primal childhood response, telling us to get ready for a good story. The scene Capote describes could be Grandma’s kitchen in “Little Red Riding Hood.” It’s warm and inviting. It reminds me of my mother making sugar cookies on a December afternoon, of the smell of ham baking in the oven on Christmas Eve.
Of course, Capote cannot hold off the real world forever. Throughout the novella, it keeps intruding on Sook and Buddy’s adventures. Angry relatives chide Sook for letting Buddy get tipsy on leftover fruitcake whiskey (“A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-in-law? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”). A rich mill owner’s wife tries to buy Sook and Buddy’s perfect Christmas tree (“Giveya twobits cash for that ol tree.”). For most of the story, however, Capote maintains the silver tones of memory. Until the end, when reality reasserts itself.
…a morning arrives in November, a leafless, birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
New Year’s Eve is in a couple of days. We will gather at my parents’ house on December 31 to play games and eat a lot of food. An old friend who lives in New Zealand will be at the party this year. He was the best man at my wedding. At midnight, we will hold up cups of juice and toast memories of the past and look to the future. We will reflect on all that is good and happy in our lives. For one night, we will be Buddy and Miss Sook, eternally young, eternally together.
Saint Marty will hold onto that Christmas memory.
Post a Comment