A Christmas Memory Summary

Truman Capote

A Christmas Memory

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A Christmas Memory Summary

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“A Christmas Memory” is a short memoir by Truman Capote, in which he recalls his childhood spent in Alabama. Capote was born in New Orleans in 1924, but spent most of his young life with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. His father was imprisoned for fraud and his parents eventually divorced. After his time in Alabama, Truman moved to New York to be with his mother and changed his last name from Persons to Capote after his mother remarried. He began working for The New Yorker in the late 1940s. He garnered a certain amount of fame when his early stories about his youth in Alabama appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. In 1958, he published the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s which was made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn just three years later. Capote’s fame was solidified by his 1966 novel In Cold Blood, which he based on a real-life murder.  He died in 1984 due to prolonged drug and alcohol abuse, without having completed his self-proclaimed “masterwork,” Answered Prayers.

Portions of “A Christmas Memory” originally appeared in the magazine Mademoiselle in 1956, appearing in full in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The story was eventually republished as a stand-alone by Random House Publishing in 1966. The story is narrated in the first person, by a boy of seven called “Buddy,” though his real name is never mentioned in the text. He is called Buddy by an eccentric, 60-something distant cousin, who once had a childhood friend named Buddy whos died in the 1880s. Similarly, this cousin is never named in the story, often referred to simply as “my friend.” However in later adaptations she is called Sook, after Capote’s cousin Miss Sook Faulk.

The story details several Christmas traditions the pair indulge in the last year before Buddy permanently leaves his relative’s home. It opens with Sook making the declaration sometime in November that it is “fruitcake weather.” As they do every year, she and Buddy take his old buggy out to the orchards to gather up any remaining pecans to use for the thirty cakes they intend to bake. After a night spent shelling pecans, they count up all their money to make sure there is enough to buy the rest of the cake ingredients the following day. They have very little money saved, as the relatives they live with provide them with only small amounts.  Buddy recalls the various money-making schemes he and Sook have tried over the past year. During the previous summer they created their own “Fun and Freak” museum featuring picture slides of Washington and New York, as well as a three-legged hen. They were also paid a penny by their other family members for every fly they swatted. It is made clear from the outset that neither Buddy nor Sook are close with the other members of the family. The other relatives are only vague figures that chastise Sook and Buddy. Despite their measly earnings, Sook gives Buddy ten cents every Saturday to go to the movies with his friends, though she never goes herself. She explains that this is because she would rather hear Buddy tell the story. She can imagine it better that way.

The following day, they purchase all of the cake ingredients, including whiskey, which was illegal in the United States at the time. They make a special trip down to a “sinful” fish-fry and dancing café, owned by a giant of a man, Mr. Haha Jones, so-called because he never laughs. Haha is surprised when he finds an old woman and child buying whiskey. When they offer to pay him in nickels, he gives them the bottle for free as long as they bring him back a fruitcake. Buddy explains that all the cakes will be given away to people they barely know—a bus driver they often wave to, a missionary that had preached in town the previous year, a family whose car had broken down outside the house once, and others—all of whom seem to be truer friend to he and Sook than their own family. When the cakes are finished, there is still a bit of whiskey left. Sook and Buddy drink the remainder, singing and dancing in the kitchen until an unnamed amorphous relative appears to chastise Sook until she cries. Buddy returns to her room to comfort her and they plan to chop down their Christmas tree the following day.

The passages describing the natural world are rich in detail and elements of local color.  The tree is selected, felled and laboriously dragged back to the house where Sook and Buddy adorn it with homemade decorations. They also make each other presents in secret. Buddy is ashamed because he has made Sook a kite, which he had also made for her the previous year, although he would like to buy her better gifts. Similarly, Sook expresses that she wants to give Buddy a bicycle, but instead has also made him a kite. They receive other impersonal gifts from their relatives and go out to the pasture with their dog Queenie to fly the kites. Sook tells Buddy that she has often tried to imagine what seeing God must be like, and thinks that Christmas day, flying kites in the pasture is what she would like to see before she dies.

Here, Buddy reveals that it was his final Christmas in Alabama. He spent the next several years miserable at military schools. Sook wrote him letters and sent him one of her special fruit cakes every year, which she was now baking alone. Queenie was kicked by a horse the following year and buried in the pasture. In her letters, Sook began to confuse Buddy with her childhood friend who was already dead. Eventually, Buddy got the news that Sook herself had died, but the letter just confirmed what Buddy already knew. The story ends as Buddy walks across the campus of his military school one December, searching the skies for a pair of kites.