Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Capote?

There was an odd old woman in my home town, or at least, so she seemed always to me. Her name was Rosemary and she lived very much alone. She was a strange character; often ill with frankly one tedious complaint or another, not altogether in her right mind, inclined to wander. While she was what was called then, "a good soul," she had few friends. My Aunt Gladys was one, my mother another. Both had known her all their lives, and that counted. Both made a point, particularly at Christmas time, to see her, bring her some small gift, and she in turn always had something for each of them, usually cookies, or a fruitcake. To be honest, now she's well past knowing, we didn't eat what Rosemary made, though my mother always made a great fuss over whatever it was. Rosemary was not a very clean person. What she made was not always immediately recognizable, and never very appetizing. The thought then was very much considered what counted. While my grandmother was still alive, Rosemary would come to see her. Rosemary said very little. Mostly, they would sit. My mother and her sister remembered that, and it counted as well. Rosemary could be a bit of trial; her conversation, such of it as there was, did not always make perfect sense, and her person was usually as unappetizing as her cooking, but she meant well, or as my Grandmother would put it, after a visit, or when Rosemary brought her some useless oddment she'd found somewhere on her walk, "It's only a kindness she means by it."

Truman Capote once said, about his small masterpiece, "A Christmas Memory appeared in 1956 -- I wrote the whole story during one January night in Hong Kong." Now Truman Capote was not always the most reliable talker, but there is in that flat declaration, much that tells me it is true. Capote was a peripatetic soul, almost from birth. He was not wanted. His father had left by the time Truman was two years old. His young mother, never to be much of a mother to him, left him locked in hotel rooms as a small child, sometimes locked in an unlit closet, and left instructions at the desk to ignore his screaming. And he was ignored. Eventually, she left him with elderly relations in a small country town. There, at last, he found, however imperfect and however briefly, a home. It was there he found his first friend and knew what it was to be loved. Eventually, his mother remarried and reclaimed him -- and Truman took his stepfather, Joe Capote's name, but little else from the man -- but Truman Capote never again knew home, except as the place he wrote about in this story, until he met his partner, Jack Dunphy. "Home," as he says in the story, "is where my friend is..." For the rest of his life though, Truman Capote wandered. Hong Kong then, seems as likely a place as any. In fact, it makes a kind of sense that he should have fixed forever the memory of his childhood, of Christmas, and of love, while alone in a hotel room, on the other side of the world. As this story is perhaps the purest, sincerest thing he ever wrote, it also makes sense that he did it so quickly and, I assume from his brief description of the writing, without much revision. No simple thing to do, remembering, perhaps best done quickly, as he did it then. He did it perfectly. He told the truth. It was a truth he had carried with him around the world, and a truth he had need of, and he set it, brilliantly, so that it might last. It will last, because we have need of it too,

When I first read A Christmas Memory, and through it, first met his beloved friend, an elderly cousin, named Nanny Rumbley Faulk, known by young Truman and everyone else simply as "Sook," I recognized her immediately, not only in my mother's sad friend Rosemary, but in a hundred other women I've known: simple women, kind, sad people, childlike, odd and sometimes difficult people, but harmless, lonely people perhaps best described, indeed, as "good souls." We've all known such people, though perhaps none so special as Truman friend, Sook. Not all of us have been as kind to these people as Sook was to that strange little boy, or as he was in turn, in his writer's way, to her. Not all of us can be as kind as my grandmother, my mother and her sister were to their friend, Rosemary. I know that I sometimes struggle myself to remember their example. And even Capote was not as kind to his friend as he might have been, once he was taken from her and grew up and lived thereafter elsewhere. He tells us so. He did not always remember her as he should have done. No one does. By the time he wrote his story, she was gone. Sadly, that is too often the way of things. He told that truth too.

The truth isn't always something we choose to tell. Memory is not always kind to us. We are not always kind. But kindness is the best of us, and deserves to be remembered, and returned. It counts. Christmas reminds us of this, or is at least in part meant to. Love comes to us, as Capote knew, not always from those we would choose, but it does come; in small ways and in unlikely things, in the eating of a satsuma, from the present of a handmade kite, in whispered childhood confidences in the dark, in the happy companionship of a small dog, in the person of an unexpected friend, in celebration, and in the memory of all these things . We must learn to recognize it. If we are lucky, we learn to do so as children, we remember love and know it when it comes again. Capote, I think, wanted us to know that, strange as it may seem, he had been lucky, that he too knew what it was to love and be loved. He'd had a friend, once. He remembered her. In writing this story, he was returning a kindness.

And that is what A Christmas Memory is then, a kindness. What better time than Christmas to remember, and return it?

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