The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
Japonica camellias. Windfall pecans. Sugar-cane fishing poles. The landscape of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” is deep South, even if the author’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s made him a New York City icon. The poignant, autobiographical Christmas tale, first published as a magazine story in 1956, recalls Capote’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
The memoir describes the author as a boy abandoned by his parents and living with elderly distant cousins. He is a lonely seven-year-old who has made an unlikely best friend—one of the unmarried cousins, who is in her sixties. Uncomfortable around other adults, the elder cousin is a naturalist, of sorts, who tames hummingbirds to land on her fingertip. She is well-versed in herbal medicine. She is also a cottage gardener who grows “the prettiest japonicas in town,” a shorthand reference to the Camellia japonica, a species native to East Asia whose myriad cultivars bloom readily in the American South in an array of reds, pinks and whites.
Despite the hardships of the era, the story centers on the friends’ elaborate preparations for Christmas. They cherish homemade gifts, and they are resourceful with the bounty yielded by the southern landscape, as is evidenced by the chief accessory they carry along in their adventures: sugar-cane fishing poles.
The two cousins journey into a pine forest to select and hew the perfect holiday tree, and to gather armloads of prickly-leafed, berry-laden holly, in shiny red and green, to serve as garland. They haul the forest harvest in an old baby carriage that serves as a makeshift wheelbarrow. Once the tree is set up in the house and adorned with colored-paper ornaments, they shred homegrown summer cotton, a southern crop that serves as indoor ornamental “snow.”
A few of the dollars the cousins have managed to save during the year are used to buy ingredients for their annual batch of thirty Christmas gift fruitcakes, including a bootleg bottle of whiskey to season the cakes. The special ingredient of the cakes is a locally sourced pecan, the southern dessert nut, which the cousins harvest from a neighbor’s grove. They convince themselves that they haven’t stolen the neighbor’s property, as they take only the “windfall” nuts that the owner has missed in his harvest collection, those hidden beneath fallen leaves and nestled in the grass. The remainder of their money is used to mail the fruitcakes to a whimsical list of recipients, including President Roosevelt. The artless elder cousin asks in earnest, “Do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?”
The Christmas memoir makes the reader feel as though the eccentric elder cousin was the young Capote’s only friend in the world. In reality, Capote had another best friend, the little girl who lived in the Monroeville house next door, and who was as awkward and bookish as he. That other best friend was Harper Lee, who years later fictionalized Capote as the character Dill in her great Southern novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College. Available for free on YouTube.com is a 1959 recording of Capote reading aloud “A Christmas Memory.”