If what you think about when you think about Truman Capote is Philip Seymour Hoffman's virtuoso turn as Capote hot on the trail of a story about murder in cold blood on the Kansas plains, or old black and white Life magazine shots of New York's famous Studio 54 where he's seen hanging out with Andy Warhol or Bianca Jagger, or maybe even the scandalous "come hither" photo of 23 year old Truman reclining on a second empire couch which appeared on the back cover of his first novel Other voices, other rooms, you might be surprised to know that he is the author of a beautifully warm and tender Christmas story.
A Christmas memory originally appeared in the collection to which Breakfast at Tiffany's gave the title, way back in 1958, but Modern Library reprinted it as the title piece of a trilogy of Capote stories about childhood, which is the copy I found in the Central City Library basement when I decided on Christmas Eve that I'd like to re-read it. I was well into it by the time I hit the stairs, but luckily not yet at the end, because I surely would have tripped from the sudden blurring of my vision. The story is not sad, or at least not just sad, but the last page and a half is one of the saddest pieces of writing you'll find anywhere, and it always makes me cry.
It's a semi-autobiographical story which draws on a time in Capote's childhood when he was packed off to stay with relatives in Alabama. It's about a boy and a much-older distant cousin: he by circumstance motherless and fatherless; she a "childlike" spinster, crippled from a childhood illness, with a face -- lest you think we are getting soppy here -- like Abraham Lincoln's. It's about their Christmas ritual of making fruitcakes together. It's about love and friendship and, in that way that really good writing has, where you find something new every time you read it because of how it invites you to bring things of your own to it, this time I realised that it's also about how a tradition, to be important, doesn't need to exist over such a long time as you might think. It only takes one time around, and two hearts, when that's all you've got.
I have to say that in this sense, Modern Library should be reprimanded for their dismal cover flap blurb, which sums up the story like this: "In A Christmas Memory, Miss Sook, Buddy (the narrator) and their dog, Queenie, celebrate the yuletide in a hilariously tipsy state." Is this the Walt Disney version or what? In A Christmas Memory the scene where Sook and Buddy get tipsy finishing off the whiskey left over from their fruitcakes is 1 1/2 pages out of 27. The other 25 1/2 pages are filled with things like Sook and Buddy going out with an old baby carriage to gather windfall pecans and the long evening they spend shelling them, "scraps of miniature thunder" crackling through the air, or the counting of the pennies they have been saving all year to buy the other ingredients, earned by killing flies for the "others" of the house (25 flies = one penny), or, my favourite, when they go over the list of people they send fruitcakes to every year, a list which includes Pres. Roosevelt and a couple from California with whom they once passed an enjoyable hour on the porch when the couple's car broke down near the house.
And the last of the things that happen in the other 25 1/2 pages is that the boy gets sent off to military school, and the cousin, already elderly when the story begins, ages and grows weaker, until finally one winter when the fruitcake weather arrives she cannot rouse herself to greet it. And when that happens, says the boy, "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 it loose like a kite on a broken sting. 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."
Harper Lee's friendship with Truman Capote goes back to the time of A Christmas Memory. Monroeville, Alabama, the town Capote's relatives lived in, was her home town and the model for Maycomb, the fictional setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. She put him in To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill, or so he proudly claimed. You can read about their friendship on the website Southern Literary Trail.
Have a look at the Truman Capote page on pinterest by Diane Wiggins, where you can see a photo of the real-life Sook, with Capote as a boy, and another of little Truman in a white suit, hands in pockets, looking exactly as you would expect Dill to look.
You can read the first pages of the story on the Auckland Libraries online catalogue record for the book. Don't worry, it's easier than you think to get used to the lack of paragraph formatting!
And to finish off, here's a very short, very beautiful (appropriately) videoclip made at the Kite Festival in Cervia, Italy: