“A Christmas Memory”
by Truman Capote
It was no secret that Truman Capote’s 1959 short story, “A Christmas Memory,” drew heavily on his childhood in small town Alabama, cared for by the same family of elderly, unmarried Faulk cousins who had cared for his orphaned mother Lillie Mae before him.
For Capote (known as Truman Persons until adopted by his stepfather), the soul of the Faulk house was Nanny Rumbley Faulk, born in 1871 and known by everyone in the tiny town of Monroeville as “Sook.”
“When Truman Capote and I were children,” Capote’s cousin and contemporary, Jennings Faulk Carter, recalled later, “we always thought of Sook as our friend. Unlike the other adults who scolded, ruled, and otherwise tried to mold us into something they thought we should be, Sook was different. She let us be children, because in her own way she was as much a child as we were.”
“She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend,” Capote wrote in his best-remembered short story. “The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”
“She might have been a little slow, but she wadn’t nothing like Truman made her out to be,” objected Jennings’ mother Mary Ida Carter (sister of Truman’s mother), as Marianne M. Moates writes in her biography, A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote’s Southern Years.
“He likes a good story, Mother,” Moates reported Jennings Carter replying. “He knows what will sell.”
“Well, he ought to try selling the truth,” was Mary Ida’s reply.
There was no doubt that Sook’s oddity and reclusiveness -- possibly the result of a severe childhood illness -- was the truth, even by Mary Ida’s definition. But how much else is truth -- historical truth -- and how much is Capote’s invention in his poignant story of the last Christmas together of an abandoned child and a childlike woman, each the other’s best friend? They bake fruitcakes together, make simple decorations and simple gifts for each other, while trying to evade the true adults, who “have power over us, and frequently make us cry.”
And how much truth had there been in the story of that first Buddy, the one Sook loved enough to bestow his name on the best friend of her second childhood? Was he only a charming figment of Capote’s imagination?
“When she saw Truman (on his last visit to Monroeville) she didn’t smile or open her arms as she had done so many times before,” Jennings Carter remembered. “She held him at arm’s length and looked at him. ‘My, my, Truman, you’ve grown. You’re grown now.’ Her Buddy was no longer the magic young person. . . (he) was one of those strange adults that Sook didn’t know how to respond to. She gave him one last look as if to say good-bye, then turned and walked slowly back to her room muttering, ‘Grown now. You’re grown now.’”
I turned to the family tree in Moates’s biography, listing the nicknames of the Faulk cousins -- “Sook” for Nanny, and “Bud” for her slightly-older brother, John Byron. Although he lived until 1934, in the 1880’s that first “Bud” would have become an adult, severing his relationship of fellow child and best friend with his sister Sook. As adulthood had placed Capote also outside Sook’s sphere. She never grew up, but her Buddies did, leaving her behind forever, the lost little girl.
Both Moates’s book and “A Christmas Memory” are available on Amazon, but you can also watch the 1966 television version, narrated by Capote himself, by searching for Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" (1966) at www.youtube.com/.
(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics continues a December of spirited classics with Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”)