Great Books Countdown – Number Nine
A Christmas Memory
by Truman Capote
I was first introduced to this story in the fall of 1966. It was in the form of a one-hour tv movie starring Geraldine Page. I loved it. Not until years later did I come across this book edition that included two other equally good stories, One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor.
Truman Capote was a gifted writer who could tell stories with tenderness and compassion, then turn around and tell stories that shock and frighten. I’ll admit partiality to the tender stories, especially these three holiday ones. The pictures he paints with words and the characters he introduces are unforgettable. As for In Cold Blood, it's not easy reading if you’re in any way faint of heart.
Capote was born in New Orleans in 1924. His original name was Truman Streckfus Persons, which might be considered catchy for a writer nowadays, but not so much back then.
His was a troubled childhood. When he was four, his father went to prison, his parents divorced, and he was sent to Monroeville, Alabama, to live with relatives. During his five years there, he developed a strong bond with a cousin that he called Sook. She appears in a number his fictions as a slightly addled, but gentle soul. In Monroeville, he was also friends with Harper Lee. Her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, bases the character of Dill on her childhood friend Truman.
The young boy taught himself to read and write before entering first grade. By age eight, he was writing short stories regularly. At eleven, he decided on a career as a writer. Daily, he would go home after school and write for at least three hours. There’s determination for you!
Eventually, he went to New York City to live with his mother and a Cuban stepfather, last name Capote. Thus, the name change. After high school, the re-christened Truman Capote was hired as a copyboy for a magazine. He disliked the job, but thought it a sight better than going to college. Then he was fired, due to mistakenly offending Robert Frost!
He re-focused on writing more short fiction and in the early ‘40’s, won recognition from the O. Henry award. Soon, his stories were being published in a variety of popular magazines. This was astonishing, as he was only in his twenties. Some literary people referred to him a genius.
Capote’s sweet narrative, A Christmas Memory, was published in 1956.
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 woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summer calico dress. . . Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the window pane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
A little boy, a distant cousin, also resides in the house and Sook calls him Buddy, in memory of a boy who was her friend years before. The present Buddy explains that the previous one died as a child and as for Sook, “She is still a child.” Despite the huge difference in age, they are a tight team. Those who run the house are an assortment of cousins, all rather stodgy and dour, but Sook and Buddy mostly ignore them.
Fruitcake weather means that it’s time for the two of them to bake a mountain of cakes, which they will mail to all sorts of people: President Roosevelt, and missionaries spoke at the church once, and the bus driver who waves every day as he passes by the house.
Sook and Buddy spend a couple days gathering and buying the essential cake ingredients. Then they set to baking. It's a colossal task, but also quite satisfying.
By some standards, their Christmas is pale, thin, and uneventful. To Sook and Buddy, it’s a most wonderful day. A Christmas Memory shines as a sensitive, warmhearted story of two characters who have little materially, yet are wealthy in their love for each other.
Following the publication in 1966 of In Cold Blood, the wordsmith Capote began a slow disintegration. He partied with celebrities, seeking attention from the rich and famous. His long-time friendship with Harper Lee dissolved. Although he still wrote, he never completed another work and eventually, he alienated even his superficial, affluent friends. In his last years, he became a sad, eccentric figure, then a recluse, and died at age 59 from years of drug and alcohol abuse.
It was a tragic ending to a life that had shown so much promise.
A Christmas Memory – 5 stars, Highly recommend. And if you can find it, the 1966 video is fine, too.