As the holiday season approaches so do floods of memories and traditions. I always read, or at the very least recall, one of my favorite short stories, “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, first published in 1956.
Largely autobiographical, it details the relationship of a young boy named Buddy and his elderly, distant cousin (whom Capote refers to as “my friend” in the story), in whose care he has been entrusted due to the estrangement of his parents. There are other relatives who live in the house as well, but, as Capote writes, even “though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them.”
The story focuses on one particular Christmas and their tradition of baking fruitcakes for their friends, although not “necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.” See, the only true friends Buddy and his friend have are one another, for they are both acutely different and lonely, although they never feel that way when with one another.
Buddy and his friend, followed closely by their orange and white rat terrier named Queenie, gather and purchase ingredients for the fruitcakes, using the money they’ve deposited throughout the year into their “Fruitcake Fund.” The most expensive and difficult ingredient to acquire is whiskey, which they must buy from Mr. Haha Jones, a gloomy man who never laughs, yet kindly gives them the whiskey free of charge, understanding how hard they have worked to collect enough coins to comprise the required two dollars. (This act of kindness prompts Buddy’s friend to proclaim that Mr. Jones will have extra raisins in his fruitcake.) Once they’ve finished baking the fruitcakes, there are just two inches of whiskey left, and even though Buddy is only seven, his friend divides the remaining whiskey between the two of them. They sing and dance, happy and carefree, until two relatives angrily enter and scold Buddy’s friend for allowing such a scene to occur. Buddy’s childlike friend cries and cries, and Buddy begs her to stop, telling her she is “too old” to cry. His friend replies that she is indeed too old–too old and too funny, and Buddy assures her that she isn’t funny but fun.
With their fruitcakes made, Buddy and his friend search for a Christmas tree, which attracts the envy of the rich mill owner’s wife, who offers to buy it. Buddy’s friend declares they wouldn’t sell the tree for a whole dollar, and the mill owner’s wife persists, telling her she can always buy another one. Buddy’s friend responds, “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”
They are restless on Christmas Eve, confessing to each other they couldn’t buy one another the expensive gifts they feel the other deserves, and when they awake on Christmas morning, the wind is blowing–the perfect weather to fly the kites they have made one another. It is while they are flying their kites that Buddy’s friend has a revelation. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord,” she tells him. “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 all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are, just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”
This Christmas turns out to be the last Christmas they spend together, as Buddy is sent to military school, and so they are both alone until one morning Buddy’s friend is too frail to proclaim that it is fruitcake weather and carry out her yearly tradition. “And when that happens, I know it,” Capote writes. “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 knife 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.”
I first read this story in 8th grade English. I loved it then, as I love it now, for its message of friendship and kindness, loneliness and understanding, the importance of what people mean to you over the material things they are able to leave behind. Every student feared Mr. Wilson, my 8th grade English teacher. He stood outside his classroom between class periods with his arms moodily crossed, and his face was always bright red as if he were a ticking bomb waiting to explode. And sometimes he did explode–onto students who forgot to write their names on their papers, use the margins of notebook paper properly (never write outside the red lines or on the white space), or students who just weren’t very bright.
Mr. Wilson had lost his family and home in a fire on Christmas day–or so the rumors said. That was why he was so grouchy, and that is why he made us read a story as depressing as “A Christmas Memory” around the holiday season. Mr. Wilson was grouchy, but he also a had a keen sense of humor, and he was a teacher who did not coddle but rather pushed and challenged. “A Christmas Memory” is depressing (to a degree) but it is more than that; it is a poignant and beautiful piece of literature. (I guess it never occurred to anyone that was the reason he assigned the reading.)
Buddy’s friend remarks that there are never two of anything–not Christmas trees and not English teachers. I never had another teacher like Mr. Wilson, a teacher who simultaneously terrified and inspired me. I am sure he has long since retired, and the junior high school I attended has sadly been demolished. We never exchanged kites as Christmas gifts. He simply inspired a further, deeper love of literature, bolstered my confidence, and left me with the memory of this brief, beautiful story. And so I read and think of it annually, and I hope, wherever he might be, Mr. Wilson does, too–and finds in it the same beauty and comfort.