Truman Capote often drew on his Southern childhood in finding material for his fiction. He also frequently focused his stories on unconventional, strangely appealing women. ‘ ‘A Christmas Memory” is possibly the best example of a Capote story that exhibits both of these features. Capote described it as his favorite among his stories, and it showed his writing shifting from a preoccupation with the darker aspects of life to warmer and more sentimental subject matter. (He would return to darker subjects later, with In Cold Blood, his account of the murder of a family in rural Kansas.) Capote said he liked “A Christmas Memory” because of the truth in it, but the story is actually an idealized and embellished portrait of his childhood and of his elderly cousin, Sook, who provided much of the warmth and companionship he knew as a youngster.
Capote’s parents were divorced when he was four years old, and his mother placed him with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, while she went to New York City to look for a job. Young Truman lived most of the time with four cousins, all much older than he. The one with whom he formed the closest relationship was Nanny Rumbley Faulk, nicknamed Sook. She was reclusive and many people considered her peculiar. Relatives later pointed out after characterizations of her began showing up in Capote’s work, however, that she was more intelligent and less naive than she appeared. At any rate, she was able to relate to Truman almost as if they were both children. Later, like Buddy in “A Christmas Memory,” Truman was sent away to boarding school. Unlike his fictional counterpart, he went through an emotional break with his cousin. Capote’s family members, including Sook, were unable to accept his homosexuality or deal with his alcoholism and drug abuse.
Capote modeled several of his characters on Sook. In addition to the kindly and eccentric woman of “A Christmas Memory,” she is represented in Dolly Talbo in his novel The Grass Harp. Some other Capote heroines are based less directly on Sook, but are closely related to her. One of them is the character who is perhaps Capote’s most famous creation, Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. William L. Nance, a literary scholar who has written extensively about Capote, referred to Holly as “a dreamer-heroine whose prototype is the elderly friend of ‘A Christmas Memory.'” Nance also noted that these characters are evidence of Capote’s nonsexual yet strong attachment to women, especially women who do not quite fit into mainstream society.
The elderly woman of ‘ ‘A Christmas Memory” certainly is out of the mainstream. Buddy says that his cousin, although in her sixties, ‘ ‘is still a child.” She is not stupid, but she does not live her life according to an adult idea of what is sensible or practical. She has a sense of fun that appeals to the boy. Buddy is tolerant of his cousin’s eccentricities, which Capote describes in detail and with affection. Her appearance, described in the story’s second paragraph, marks her as an unorthodox person. She wears tennis shoes and a baggy sweater with a lightweight calico dress; her “remarkable” face is craggy yet delicate. Later, the narrator, the boy grown up, relates more facts about her. “She has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry,” Capote writes. Then he tells us the things she does: “tame hummingbirds … tell ghost stories … so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas [a flowering shrub] in town, know the recipe for every sort of old-time Indian cure.” The story provides fewer details about the little boy, but it is obvious he is a precocious child, something that inspires admiration in his cousin. She loves to have Buddy tell her the stories of the movies he sees; she will never go to a movie because she wants to save her vision for when she sees God.
Buddy and his cousin create a happy world of their own. They ‘ ‘are not, on the whole, too much aware” of the other relatives who live with them; instead, they find joy in each other’s company. Incidents throughout the story underline their attachment to each other and their distance from the rest of their family. Because Buddy and his cousin have little money, most of their pleasures are improvised, from gathering pecans left on the ground after the harvest to making their own Christmas gifts and ornaments. They are enthusiastic about their various moneymaking schemes, from entering contests advertised on the radio to setting up their homemade museum, even though these schemes are more often failures than successes. They enjoy interacting with people outside of the world of their conventional relatives and neighbors—such as the bootlegger Haha Jones or the strangers and near-strangers to whom they send their Christmas fruitcakes. The old woman lets Buddy drink whiskey, which gets her in trouble with the rest of the family. And while the other family members give him disappointingly practical Christmas gifts, she gives him a kite. That’s what he gives her, too, in an exchange of gifts that, as critic Stanley Edgar Hyman once pointed out, is as corny and as emotionally effective as the exchange in O. Henry’s ‘ “The Gift of the Magi.”
Over the years, some critics have pronounced “A Christmas Memory” overly sentimental, but most of them, along with the reading public, have found it genuinely moving. It is particularly heartrending when Capote moves from the idyllic Christmas Day that Buddy and his cousin spend flying their kites to Buddy’s separation from his friend—a separation created first by distance when Buddy goes away to school, then by the old woman’s death. It is indicative of their bond that Buddy feels her death before he is told of it. In life, Capote’s bond with Sook was so strong, and so painful to break off, that he was driven to recreate it along with similar relationships in his fiction for many years afterward. “A Christmas Memory,” according to Nance, “has a unique importance” among Capote’s works because it is so much a model for his later stories, often centering on unusual women who live in a world of their own and who inspire love that has little to do with sex. ‘ The pastness of the experience is also essential; Capote’s is a fiction of nostalgia,” Nance observed. ” ‘A Christmas Memory’ is one of his best and most satisfying works because it places the feelings he can dramatize most powerfully in the setting which is best suited to them.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Truman Capote, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997