“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 Christmas Memory, Capote).
Most Christmas stories are light and pretty, strung with delicate or bold, shiny words that lend shape to holiday tropes, well-worn and loved, played out with only a change in character jobs, hair color, and cityscape. These stories are wonderful in a million different ways, (see my Hallmark Channel addiction) but to balance all the sugar, there’s nothing like a savory Capote Christmas tale.
These stories are lit with gentle candlelight, the fear that Christmas might not turn out as planned, and the plot delivers a Christmas wish only in part, leaving the reader with a crush of delight, sadness, and yearning, a wish there was just a little bit more to the three short stories in the collection called A Christmas Memory. Grown from Capote’s childhood, these tales take root in our minds and spread to our hearts reminding us of what really matters at the holidays. Hint—it’s never that an entire town is saved from bankruptcy by a lucky character’s last minute inheritance. It’s the simple wish delivered in the form of handmade ornaments, kites, and heart-made fruitcakes mailed to friends all over the world, to some they never even met.
“A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candy-like light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper…” (A Christmas Memory, Capote).
When I think of childhood Christmases mine were full of 70’s and 80’s splendor—a time for excess that was never part of everyday life. My parents made sure each year was everything we could have imagined. As I grew up I watched soap operas with both my grandmas. I remember the glistening, shimmering holiday celebrations on Young and the Restless in particular. Throughout December every blessed character wore sweaters of woven gold and silver, their lips moistened with glosses that never dulled, their hair swept into intricate holiday dos. Oh, I couldn’t imagine anything more decadent than one day living through the holidays like that, my high heels clicking and clacking over marble floors, me wrapped in tinseled clothing, dripping in jewels, my eyes brightened by the white lights that decorated the show sets top to bottom.
Yet, here I sit as an adult who could drape every household surface and myself in head-to-toe cheap diamond-like bobbles and what do I find? The holiday stories I love most are set in spare, dusty kitchens where what the characters string together ornaments made of paper and things dug from their backyard, harvested from trees, or made by secondary characters of ill-repute. These Capote stories are edged with sadness from loss and not enough instead of highlighted in soap opera gold and way too much. Told by a sad southern boy who lit up New York with dry wit, wry smile, and pointed writing, I hear both voices in the stories. And each one leaves me wishing Capote had written more… just one more tale about a boy and the little bit extra he wished for each year but never quite got. “This is our last Christmas together. Life separates us…” (A Christmas Memory).
No! I think each time I get to that part, as if I hadn’t read it before. It can’t end like this!
So much is told in the last two pages and many people who receive this book never pick it up again after all of that rustic feeling, dulled tinsel décor and not quite happy ending. But for me, I look forward to it. I set it where I can see it throughout the year and anticipate reading it sometime after Thanksgiving. The spare story, detailed with lovely, handmade wishes and unfulfilled dreams is woven with enough love and hope that I read it again, and again and again, thinking maybe this time it will end the way I want it to. Even though, of course it ends just as it should.
So, if you know someone who likes a little dark mixed into their holiday sparkle, gift her this book. It’s beautiful in its own shabby way, like nothing else you’ll read this season.