Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory recalls a fond seasonal ritual. Jefferson Chase reports
Originally this column was going to be about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a fine drinking novel that’s considerably darker and more down-to-earth than the Audrey Hepburn film.But among the shorter pieces included as throw-ins in my paperback version of Truman Capote’s society yarn, I found something better suited to the time of year – and no less fine.A Christmas Memory recounts a childhood ritual. Born in 1924, Capote was the son of a broken home who was sent to live with relatives for a number of years in rural Alabama. It was an unhappy time, made bearable by the presence of a spinster cousin named Sook.It was for her that Capote composed the story.A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window... ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather...’ 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.A Christmas Memory was published the same year, 1966, as Capote’s In Cold Blood, with which it shares little in common other than honesty.Making fruitcakes is not without its hindrances. Money to buy the ingredients has to be cobbled together despite the watchful eyes of the house’s other skinflint inhabitants. And one ingredient requires a trip to the terrifying figure who runs the local still.Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does not smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: ‘What you want with Haha?For the moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best. ‘If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.’ His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling!Laughing, too. ‘Which one of you is a drinkin’man?’ Despite the fruitcake’s well-deserved standing as the least desirable of Yuletide gifts, Mr. Haha agrees to accept one as payment for the holiday hooch.When the cakes are baked, there’s a bit of the brown stuff left over – perfect for toasting what is, unbeknownst to the author and his friend, to be their last Christmas together.We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwed-up expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball... Inside myself I feel as warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney.The author’s first drink is interrupted by the arrival of other relatives, who fuss and fret about the road to ruination.The following year he is sent to a military academy.Truman Capote escaped Alabama when his mother married a wealthy businessman from New York, the city where the author would make his name as a sharp-eyed observer of upper crust society.Capote’s may have developed into an extravagant, socialite, scarf-wearing dandy, but he also remained a country boy. It was that distance, one suspects, that helped him come up with his marvelously ironic descriptions of the Holly Golightlys of this world.A Christmas Memory shows a master of sophistication being susceptible to the melancholy sentimentality that is as much a part of the season as fruitcakes and fireplaces. The story reminds us that too often in life we only appreciate family rituals when they’re gone. In this spirit, happy holidays to you and yours – enjoy them while they last.
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