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'A Christmas Memory' of Traditions and Fruitcake

"Oh, my! It's fruitcake weather, Buddy!" has long been my family's holiday in-joke. It's first uttered each year sometime around Thanksgiving and repeated almost every blustery morning leading up to Christmas Day, until it is no longer funny — just a comfortably annoying tradition.

I'd like to say that we quote from Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" because as a family we spent our holiday evenings huddled around the hearth, reading aloud from literary classics. But in truth, I had no idea that Capote penned the line until I was an adult. Like most kids of the late 20th century, I spent my December in front of the television, watching classic holiday programming instead.

The most dreaded night for me each year was when my mother tuned into PBS for one particular telecast starring Geraldine Page, who played a developmentally challenged old woman living somewhere in the rural South. She and her lisping, sissified pre-teen cousin Buddy lived in poverty and spent the interminable broadcast hour making fruitcakes, which they then sent to everyone from President Roosevelt to a "Mr. Haha Jones" — their moonshining Native American neighbor. It was a far cry from Frosty, Rudolph and Charlie Brown, and my brother and I dreaded its annual airing.

A decade later, while rooting around the guest bedroom of my elderly gay uncle, I found a battered copy of Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories. Being a newly minted homosexual, I had a list of gay cultural mileposts with which I needed to familiarize myself, and Breakfast at Tiffany's was high on it. I spent the rest of that vacation at my uncle's imagining myself as the blithe, worldly Holly Golightly — a life I would emulate a few years later as New York's most politely adventurous drag queen.

After I turned the final page on Holly's cosmopolitan adventures, I continued reading the rest of the book's stories. It wasn't until midway through "A Christmas Memory" that I realized it was the source for the movie my brother and I had made fun of for so many years.

The story is a grocery list of traditions: the annual fruitcake baking, the traditional gift exchange of homemade kites, the old woman's refusal to rise from bed on the 13th of any month. Capote's simple observational style and natural dialogue invite everyone to join in with the guileless woman and her young friend — to dig their hands deep into the mixing bowl fruitcake batter. By the end of the story, we too are compelled to make a tradition out of this semi-autobiographical telling of Capote's upbringing.

The last lines of the story hit hard. Capote dashes the familiar comfort of rituals by illustrating that traditions are less like endless cycles than like choruses to a favorite song — a song that, like every song, has an ending. Buddy, the narrator, looks back on his long-lost past, just as we know that Capote went on to his own fabulous life in New York with an entirely different cast of fruitcakes.

Part of me imagines that Capote and his publisher tacked on "A Christmas Memory" (originally published as a magazine article) after Breakfast at Tiffany's simply to cobble together a book of saleable size. But each early winter, as I wrap up another year of my own Holly Golightly life, I realize the genius of publishing the two stories together.

My current life of unpredictable joys would merely be chaotic if I didn't hold on to some tethers of tradition. Which is why — though I've never made one myself — I still wake up the morning after Thanksgiving and breathlessly exclaim to anyone who'll listen: "It's fruitcake weather, Buddy!"

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell