Saturday, January 06, 2007

Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory": An Appreciation

Recently I was greatly rewarded by reading Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend of mine. We're just past the official Christmas season so I guess my timing is a bit off; nevertheless I wanted to share a few comments about it because I found it to be a beautiful, heartbreaking piece that I heartily recommend to all who enjoy good reading (and good writing!).

By sheer coincidence, I received in the mail via NetFlix (the greatest thing going since sliced bread) the film Capote just after I finished reading this famous short story/memoir, so as of late I've had Truman Capote haunting my mind... which is something unusual for me, having only read In Cold Blood a few years back and knowing hardly anything about him or his life. At some point I will write up a brief review of the film for the side column over there, since I definitely want to make a point of recommending that as well.

As I just said, Capote's "nonfiction novel" was my only previous experience with his writing, so I really didn't have much by way of expectations for reading "A Christmas Memory." All I knew about it was that it was some kind of reminiscence about his childhood, that people have tended to like it, and that my friend, who is an avid reader and film-watcher like me, was deeply moved by it. As a matter of fact, he told me that he and his wife re-read the story every year around Christmastime, which intrigued me on a number of levels, not the least of which that he doesn't believe in nor celebrate the tradition Christmas holiday (i.e., the birth of Jesus)... so I wondered what it was about this particular story that gave it enough weight and value to be read anew each year.

I can't speak for my friend, so I can't answer that question here. There are more than likely deeply personal reasons for why the story moves him as much as he does. He holds some things in common with Capote in terms of upbringing (raised in a "country" state, mostly by women, father out of the picture, etc.), so I can only guess that has something to do with his opinion of the story.

As for me, I found it to be a masterful piece of writing. I think I say that primarily because of the power of the prose: the power to immerse you into a specific time and place, but also the power to make you feel some of the heartbreak, the loneliness, and the pain of lost innocence that Capote is expressing in the story. "Lost innocence" is a very common theme for a writer to pick up on, especially in a memoir or piece remembering one's childhood; however, I've read very few things that express it as perfectly and as beautifully as this. But the story doesn't only make you feel a very real pain for the loss of that all-important quality -- it also reinforces how utterly important and valuable it is, how it is a source of genuine wisdom. For although Capote is lamenting its loss in his own life, he's also recalling and celebrating its central presence in the life of someone very dear to him, someone who taught him the meaning of real love and friendship. Someone whom he can now only reach out to in his memory.

The story itself is simple: just a memory of one particular Christmas season from Capote's childhood, and the sights, smells, sensations, etc. that accompanied it. It's quite short, and related in a straightforward style, with just enough author commentary to know that he's looking back on it from a distance of both time and space. Like most childhood memories, it is elegiac in mood, but somehow this one achieves a perfect mixture of wonder and melancholy. It's hard to put into words, but what really makes this little memory remarkable is the way it is written: it is just so vivid and heartfelt that anyone with a pulse can't help but feel some of Capote's joy for the small graces of his childhood, as well as the pain for the absences and misunderstandings.

Imagine a morning in late November, it begins. 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 it 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.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched, 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 windowpane, "it's fruitcake weather!"

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together -- well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

Something about those opening paragraphs of this remarkable reminiscence set the tone beautifully for the rest of the piece. They almost contain all that you need to know about the whole story. Capote had a famously difficult childhood; his parents divorced bitterly and engaged themselves in a long, hard custody battle over him. And then, when his mother, a real Southern belle apparently, gained custody of Truman, she promptly abandoned him, leaving him with relatives in the Middle of Nowhere, Alabama, while she went off to seek brighter, shinier things in New York. (Later he went to live with her and her second husband, Joe Capote, there, which gave him a pen name to use, if nothing else.) Yet he seems to have lived some of the happiest years of his life in that Alabama country town, thanks primarily to the love of his misfit spinster cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, who he calls his "best friend" or simply "my friend" in this story -- almost as if she were the one and only true friend he ever had. In some ways, that may have been the case... for she apparently loved him unconditionally, for who he was, his child's mind and hers seeing understanding the world in more or less the same innocent way.

Miss Sook had an annual ritual during the Christmas season, and that was to bake as many of her famous fruitcakes as possible and give them away as gifts to family and friends and total strangers. "Buddy" would help her in this annual task, and it seems that throughout his life, when he holidays would roll around again, his mind would always return to these memories of baking fruitcakes with her, with their devilish secret ingredient: homemade moonshine from the owner of the town's "fish fry and dancing cafe," Mr. Haha Jones. "They call him Haha because he's so gloomy, a man who never laughs," Capote remembers through a child's eyes. The way he relates how they would go about getting this "sinful" concoction, and their use of (and occasional partaking in) the spirit, is both hilarious and poignant. The whole tale puts a laugh in your throat in one line, and then replaces it with a big ol' lump in the next.

I know well that these scattered comments and thoughts can't possibly do justice to such a poetic and moving account. But I hope some of my enthusiasm for Capote's memoir, and admiration for the art of the thing, is somehow getting through. Trust me when I say that this is a profoundly moving meditation on how simple acts of kindness, compassion and companionship can stay with a soul for a lifetime -- and not just stay with one, but inform and inspire one as well. Truman Capote led a confused and difficult life, that's well known; yet one wonders what it might have been had his "best friend" Miss Sook not taken up the responsibilities his parents discarded, and given him the TLC every child deserves and yearns for. (Every adult too, for that matter.) One thing's certain: his name probably wouldn't be showing up on literary blogs, in films, and on the pages of great works of literature... a boat can't get anywhere without a little helpful breeze filling up its sails.

People found Miss Sook to be simpleminded, eccentric and slow... yet her wisdom has endured, not just for Capote, but for millions of grateful readers besides, thanks to his beautiful and expressive love-letter to her. So to conclude, here she is, channeled through the inspired pen of a great writer, Truman Capote:

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to a pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind...

"How foolish I am!" my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I've always thought?" she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but at a point beyond. "I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away the spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes that the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are" -- her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone -- "just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

Here's hoping that we all leave the world with the beauty of the present moment in our own eyes... and with the wisdom we sometimes call innocence returning, when we need it most, to our hearts.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

I read this short memoir piece on Duke's strong recommendation, made before he created this fine post of appreciation for the piece. Duke is right about all he has said. This piece is all about nostalgia, and nostalgia is a very precarious road to go down for a writer. If you're going to do it, it has to be done right. The writing has to capture the affection for the writer's own memories and place the reader into the moment with such effectiveness that THEY feel it too, no matter how old or young they are and what their own memories are. Truman Capote succeeded in doing it right in this piece. It is ALL about the beauty of the writing and the way he captures his own childhood memories by the use of details and a certain kind of emotional insight, perhaps triggered by the travails of the rest of his life after his childhood. The details in this piece are astonishing, whether it's the 'lemony' pools of water in the woods on the way to cut down the Christmas tree, the kites like 'sky fish', the way dimes jangle, or Christmas angels made out of tinfoil from Hershey bars. Capote's attention to these details brings this piece fully to life. You don't have to have come from the south or lived in that time to appreciate it. That is because when you read this, the writer places you in the South and in that time. In other words, you ARE from there and living at that time when you immerse yourself in this piece. This is so incredibly difficult to accomplish, but it reads like it was done easily. Duke is dead right. "A Christmas Memory" is a remarkable piece of writing.

By the way, if you who reads this has not read "In Cold Blood", that is an absolutely riveting book. It's very different from this short piece in every way but it's also very much worth the effort.