A Christmas Memory

My favourite Christmas story is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. I first read it when I was ten in a Scholastic collection of Christmas stories and was completely entranced with the remarkable storytelling style of this man. Although I did not appreciate the significance at the time, In Cold Blood, Capote’s creative nonfiction examination of a murder in Kansas was published about the same time as I was discovering this story he published in his early thirties.

Capote’s extraordinary gift was empathy for everyone and anyone, from the “sixty-something” year old woman who is the protagonist of A Christmas Memory, to the murderers and murdered in Kansas. The development of empathy in children and youth has been the work of all the therapy I have ever done and I believe that A Christmas Memory was the beginning of my own quest to understand what empathy is…empathy, which protects us from becoming liars and thieves and murderers.

Writing In Cold Blood changed Truman Capote. That is surely the proof of the goodness of this man: appreciating the workings of the mind of murderers changes you forever. When you read In Cold Blood, you no longer have to make a personal examination of murderers. Truman Capote has done that for you. This review of In Cold Blood at its 50th anniversary underlines the significance of Capote’s work but also puts it in perspective:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/16/truman-capote-in-cold-blood

But back to A Christmas Memory. A Christmas Memory is about making fruitcakes, friendship, Christmas and family, but also about the morality that can emerge in families when they are caring for “orphans” or the disabled. There are aspects of memoir in this story and, so, ask yourself: what does it mean that one of the most important people in Capote’s formative years was an elderly relative who never fully recovered from the death of her best friend (lover?) years earlier and who is taken in, as Capote was, by relatives, to be cared for? I think such relationships allowed Capote to appreciate our common humanity and his faith in humanity is confirmed in Haha Jones, the bootlegger. Here is that segment from A Christmas Memory:

“Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a 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 drinking man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking.”

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed café and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says, “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, jangling the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

In this vignette, the master storyteller reminds us that reputation is not the whole story of a person and that we should make our own judgments of the value of a person.

It is the ultimate Christmas story: what is good can come from the most unexpected places. Saviors can be born in stables, children and the disabled can teach us and being human requires hard work.

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