Making A Christmas Memory
“Dad, it’s SNOWING!” said the above little girl this morning — a phrase that was no doubt repeated all over the Baton Rouge area. It is hard to explain to someone from more northern latitudes what a MASSIVE HONKING BIG DEAL any snow at all is to kids this far South. It snows only once or so every few years. This is the first snow my kids have seen since we moved to Louisiana in 2011. They were out in it before daylight, having seen the forecasts last evening. It was as hard for them to get to sleep last night as it usually is on Christmas Eve.
They were well prepared for it. I was away from the keys most of yesterday, and had a restful evening at home in front of the first fire of the season. Julie and Matthew were out doing errands, and Lucas and Nora decorated the Christmas tree while I sat on the couch and read Christmas stories to them.
Let me warn you off what I thought would be a nice Advent present for us: a collection of seasonal short stories called A Very Russian Christmas. The first one I chose at random was a Chekhov story that made no sense. The second was a Dostoevsky tale about a ragamuffin whose mother freezes to death, and he goes out into the icy city, where the rich won’t let him into their Christmas celebration, then a bully beats him up, and he finally finds a stack of wood to curl up under and freeze to death, but it’s all okay because he meets Mama in heaven.
“Dad, that’s awful,” one of the kids said. “What kind of Christmas story is that?”
A very Russian one, apparently. I gave it one more stab: a Maxim Gorky tale about a writer who wrote a Christmas story about an elderly beggar woman and her blind husband freezing to death on their way to the first matins of Christmas day. Satisfied with his story, the writer is visited by a cavalcade of the ghosts of his characters from these miserable stories, while the Voice of God chastises him bitterly for adding to the misery of the world by writing stories highlighting it. The spirits torment him so much that he tears his short story up.
“This is horrible!” I said, as the kids groaned.
Deep in the hole, I went for the big guns: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”. I used to read a lot of Capote, but never this story. It’s set in 1940s Alabama. The narrator is Buddy, a seven year old boy who lives with his sprawling family out in the country. His best friend is a distant, elderly cousin who is not all there mentally. The story begins with the old cousin waking up one morning in November and deciding, as she does every year at that time, that it’s time to make Christmas fruitcakes.
Capote, who based the story on his real-life childhood relationship with his Cousin Sook, writes in spellbinding detail about living through the Christmas season with her. Here they are making fruitcakes:
The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.
And here they are, an elderly woman and a seven-year-old boy, tramping through the woods to chop down a Christmas tree:
Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.
And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on.
Many years ago I was a reader of Capote, but somehow I had never seen this classic story, and I didn’t anticipate the final lines … which I could barely choke out because I was sobbing. Literally, sobbing. So was Lucas, as he sat by the fire.
My unsentimental daughter: “Mom, my gosh, they’re crying! Both of them!”
Well, we were. It’s the best Christmas story ever. For me, I’m sure part of it is how the story evoked memories of my late, great aunts Hilda and Lois — especially Lois, who was my own version of Cousin Sook. Here’s Lois in her cabin’s kitchen, where I saw with her on her lap as a little boy and helped her mix cake batter and bake pecan cookies:
I had no idea at all how poor she and Hilda were until I saw that photo in adulthood. That cabin was a kind of Tom Bombadil’s cottage to me as a little boy. It looks so shabby here, and I guess it was, but that’s not how I remember it:
A retired priest friend who had ministered to Lois and Hilda back in the 1970s, when they lived here, asked me a few years ago why it was that the family let those old women, then nearing 80, live in such hardscrabble conditions. Good question. I put it to my dad, who just laughed.
“Hell, you couldn’t get those old ladies to do nothin’ they didn’t want to do,” he said. It’s true. I can remember that much. They were indomitable. Here they were as Red Cross nurses in World War I, in France:
For me, I think the tears came mostly from how the Capote story evoked all those memories of my own early childhood with Lois and Hilda, who were my great-grandmother’s sisters. That world no longer exists. There is nothing left of it, except in my memory, and in the memories of Southern children who were fortunate enough to have had it.
By the way, do you remember the Fruitcake Lady from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show? She was a bossypants nonagenerian who had been Capote’s Aunt Tiny. She was awesome beyond awesome. Take a look at this clip of one of her “Ask The Fruitcake Lady” segments: (it’s NSFW):
Bitter Southerner has a good remembrance of Aunt Tiny (Marie Rudisill), who was the kind of dame old-timey Southerners call “a pistol.” Anyway, please read “A Christmas Memory,” aloud, by the fire, to your kids. Lucas and Nora just came in from playing in the snow. They’re cold and wet, and warming up by the fire. There will be more stories today, but none can possibly be as good as the one we read last night. And that is a Christmas memory for our family.