It is, indeed, that time of year. Come Tuesday, December 2nd, at 7PM I will be reading Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory at the bookstore. I don’t know if seven years quite constitutes a “tradition” yet, but if it does, this is ours, and mine.
Every year I pull my rather weathered copy of the book off my shelf, and read it again to myself. Then I read it aloud. No one but me to hear it then, that first time, in November. I stumble, every year, in the same places, over the same words, even after seven years and more than a dozen performances of the piece. Every year I smile and every year I choke up in exactly the same places. Every time I am impressed again by the quality of the prose and moved by the power of the sentiment.
It is a perfect, American Christmas story.
Of all the readings I do each year, this is the one I like best. I can’t say, even after all this time that it is the best I can do, but I’m proud of it, nonetheless. The folks who come to hear it, and the folks who come back year after year, tell me how much this story means to them, how much they enjoy our evening together. They tell me the cookies were better last year, or that they wish the cider was “hard”, but no one really complains, and a good time would seem to be had by all.
A Christmas Memory is an expression of gratitude. That’s it’s power, I think. It’s beautifully written and as brief, as slight, perhaps as an actual memory, but it’s authority comes from the sincerity with which it was written. The joy and the regret are real. The love is honest.
Truman Capote was already something of a literary celebrity at just thirty-two, and working as a journalist, alone at Christmas, in a hotel room “on the other side of the world” when he wrote this story. In it he recalls to life Buddy — himself at six — and Sook, his “sixty-something” cousin and best friend, their little dog, Queenie, and the holidays they spent together in Monroeville, Alabama, where Buddy’s mother left him, in the care of rather stern “relations.” Together the friends make fruitcakes, and Christmas decorations, fetch a tree from the woods, and make each other kites as presents, yet again unable to afford the gifts they each wish they might buy for the other. That’s it. That’s the story. From such humble materials, Capote made a minor masterpiece; redolent of whisky and candied fruit, pine and orange-peel, tinted with the red dust of the roads and colored by the loneliness of a young man, far from home, remembering the last happiness of his troubled childhood. He would go on to write other, grander things. He never wrote a better.
And every year, I read it aloud at the bookstore. I’d like to think I’m better at this now than I was the first time I did it, but I don’t know that to be true. What I do know is that there is a magic in the words; a power to unite and delight the reader and the listeners alike, a magic that transports us all back to childhood, and the wonder of a cold, Christmas morning, the pleasures of a kite as it takes the air.
It’s a story, and a tradition for which I am grateful and with which I hope in turn to express my gratitude to the audience, our customers at the bookstore, to my employers for letting me read aloud, to the memories of the author, to the shades of Buddy and Sook.
Gratitude, I’m convinced, to be sincere, requires action, sound. We must say it, show it, sing it if we can. Well, I can’t sing, so this is the best I can do.
Hope to see you there, the night of.
(Thanks to Rosemary’s Blog for the photo.)