Christmas is the season for tradition. A quick glance at the TV schedule this week shows the cable stations are running all the old chestnuts: Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis, It’s a Wonderful Life, and countless more nostalgia-fests. Everybody has a favorite Christmas story, and mine is a short story by Truman Capote called “A Christmas Memory.” There is a Hallmark made-for-TV version (1997), but it doesn’t show up much on TV. Maybe that’s because the story’s emotional effects are so dependent on Capote’s glorious prose.
First published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1956, the story tells of the excitement a seven-year-old boy named Buddy and his elderly, eccentric cousin feel as Christmas approaches. It’s set in the 1930s in the deep South; their big thing each Christmas is to bake fruitcakes and give them to people. Capote himself had been abandoned by his mother as a child and raised by much older cousins in rural Alabama.
After the huge success of In Cold Blood, a very different kind of story, Capote’s publisher, Random House, issued A Christmas Memory in 1966 as a stand-alone hard cover in an effort to capitalize on Capote’s fame. (I like to imagine a naïve reader on the Amazon Web site following Amazon’s suggestions and winding up with a delightfully eclectic set of Capote – In Cold Blood, A Christmas Memory, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)
I’m not sort of person who tears up at Hallmark TV specials, but I have trouble reading the first couple of paragraphs of “A Christmas Memory” without feeling profound emotion. It’s hard to figure out exactly why. Maybe it’s that the story is about two misfits who have a grand friendship. Maybe its power comes from probing the emotions associated with giving. Perhaps, in some back street of my brain, Capote taps into my memories of baking cookies with my grandmother when I was a little kid. Who knows? This story works for me.
In his very useful book for writers of all types, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, the poet Ted Kooser talks about the need for emotion in poetry and the need to control that emotion. What you learn in literature class is that “sentimentality” – usually defined as an excess of emotion or emotion inappropriate to the subject – is a very bad thing, a sure sign of the novice writer, the first step on the road to kitsch. As Kooser points out, however, “sentimentality is entirely in the eye of the beholder.” He prefers a different term, “gushiness.” Most of us, Kooser says, know gushiness in a poem when we see it.
But for Kooser “one of the hardest things to learn is how poems can express emotion without expressly stating that emotion.” There it is, the nub of literature. Poetry and stories are, above all, about emotion yet the more a writer hypes the emotion, the less moving the work tends to be. Capote, of course, was an alchemist of emotion, and “A Christmas Memory” is a masterpiece of understated emotion.
Here’s the full text of the story. (Sorry about the annoying pop-ups, but this is the only online version I could find.)
And here – think of it as my Christmas card to you, our readers, at 317am – are the opening paragraphs of “A Christmas Memory”:
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. 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 a 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.
Note: this post is a recycled, edited version of a post I ran last Christmas.